American trade policy needs fresh thinking, beginning with the definition of “free trade.” Traditionally, free trade has been defined as the lowering and elimination of barriers to trade, but a more comprehensive and accurate definition should include opposition to trade subsidies. Those subsidies, including the Export-Import Bank and agricultural price supports, distort trade by shifting trade and the use of productive resources away from what Americans would choose in a truly free market.
If we define free trade to include opposition to trade subsidies as well as trade barriers, members of the 108th Congress can be classified into four categories: free traders, who oppose both trade barriers and subsidies; internationalists, who oppose barriers and support subsidies; isolationists, who support barriers and oppose subsidies; and interventionists, who support barriers and subsidies.
An analysis of voting on 23 key issues in the 108th Congress finds that few members vote consistently for free trade. In the House, 22 Republicans and 3 Democrats opposed barriers and subsidies in more than two-thirds of the votes they cast. The most consistent free traders were Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Michael Castle (R-DE), Susan Davis (D-CA), Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Jim Ramstad (R-MN), Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Of the other members, 157 voted as internationalists, 2 as isolationists, and 16 as interventionists. The rest had mixed voting records.
In the Senate, 15 Republicans and 9 Democrats voted as free traders. The most consistent were John Sununu (R-NH), Wayne Allard (R-CO), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Pat Roberts (R-KS). Of the other senators, 24 voted as internationalists, 15 as interventionists, and none as isolationists. The rest had mixed voting records.
A more extended examination of “career” voting on trade since 1993 finds that the most consistent free traders were Rep. Jeff Flake and Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.); the most consistent internationalists were Rep. John Boozman (R-AR) and Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA); the most consistent isolationists were Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-TN) and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ); and the most consistent interventionists were Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO) and Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-SC).