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Congress finally gets something right

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Thu October 13, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Congress passes long-delayed trade deals with three nations
  • John Avlon says it was rare case of two parties working together for economic progress
  • Most of the dissenting votes came from Democrats skeptical of free trade
  • Avlon says it's foolish to try to roll back the tide of globalization

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the new book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns" (Overlook).

New York (CNN) -- Our dysfunctional divided Congress finally was able to find some common ground Wednesday, passing long-delayed free-trade bills with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Together, these treaties promise to increase U.S. exports by more than $12 billion a year while creating more than 300,000 jobs -- good news for our still-sluggish economy and struggling American workers.

President Barack Obama had been pushing for the passage of these trade bills in recent months, confronting opposition from his own party in the process. Free-trade bills were the cornerstone of the economic legacy of President Bill Clinton and his Republican-controlled Congress, but more traditional labor union-backed liberal Democrats have long opposed free trade. Republicans have generally been philosophic backers of free-trade deals since the Eisenhower era, reflecting their big-business base.

The fault lines in the vote reflected this deeper philosophic and special interest divide. The administration-backed bills were passed by bipartisan margins, but the dissenting votes were almost entirely from the Democratic side of the aisle.

In the Senate, all the no votes came from Democrats on the South Korea and Panama deals. In the House, 130 of the 151 no votes came from Democrats on South Korea, as did 158 of the 167 no votes on Colombia.

It is heartening to see at least one area where centrist Democrats and Republicans can agree to take action that could benefit the American economy in the long run. It proves that the hyper-partisan-driven obstructionism and gridlock that has defined this Congress -- and brought its approval ratings to the historic low of 13% in the current Gallup Poll -- does not need to exist. Likewise, it proves that when the Obama administration actually reaches out beyond bumper-sticker bipartisanship it can be rewarded with legislative action.

It's too bad that Republicans can't seem to find policy areas to reach out to Democrats accordingly. But a win is still a win -- and this is a good day for those frustrated with legislative action.

The political fault lines surrounding free trade are still being settled. In the last election cycle, we began to see ads criticizing China as a proxy for concern about the ways that spiraling deficit and debt can ultimately undermine our sovereignty.

In another pushback to a lack of enforcement of trade regulations and international finance rules, the Senate also passed a bipartisan-backed bill aimed at punishing Chinese currency manipulation. The larger debate is still unfolding, with both tea party and Occupy Wall Street protesters variously offering skeptical takes on the downsides that can come with free-trade agreements that are not fairly enforced.

Nonetheless, it is foolish for a country to try to resist the trends driving globalization. We should always try to make change our ally, not our enemy. And one of the most accessible explanations for why free trade works on balance comes from the late, great TV show "The West Wing," penned by Aaron Sorkin.

In the show, the communications director, Toby Ziegler, is confronted with World Trad Organization protesters who wouldn't be out of place at Occupy Wall Street. "You want the benefits of free trade?" he asks. "Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That's 'cause I'm a speechwriter and I know how to make a point. ... It lowers prices, it raises income ... and now you end with the one that's not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And that's it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one peace. I'm sure I've seen that on a sign somewhere."

It's still a relevant perspective. Obama deserves credit for finally putting these bills forward against the objections of his party's liberal labor union base. And Republicans deserve credit for not simply opposing the president reflexively. It offers some glimmer of hope that Congress can, in fact, reason together. And by taking action, there is new evidence that the American economy does not have to be held hostage by special interests on either side of the aisle.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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