Jeff Sessions’ No-Growth Republicanism on Free Trade and Immigration

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The GOP’s anti-immigration wing is anti-trade too.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Jeff Session (R., Ala.)

Here we go again. In the 1990s Pat Buchanan launched a civil war within the Republican Party on a platform targeting immigration and trade. Some claimed Pitchfork Pat was the future of the GOP, though in the end he mainly contributed to its presidential defeats.

In the waning days of the Obama Presidency the GOP’s Buchanan wing is making a comeback, and in ways that are revealing about its ultimate agenda. The leader of this movement in Congress is Jeff Sessions, who has long railed against illegal immigration but since becoming chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on immigration has taken a more public stance against legal immigration.

Now he’s opposing the bipartisan effort to pass trade promotion authority and in the process showing that his objections aren’t only about the law or immigrants. They’re rooted in the same hostility to markets and globalization that animates the slow-growth Democratic left.

In a “critical alert” issued by his office, the Senator lists five concerns about giving the President trade promotion authority. Number five, which is getting the most attention, is his claim that “there are numerous ways TPA could facilitate immigration increases above current law—and precious few ways anyone in Congress could stop its happening.”

His reasons boil down to adding immigration language into trade deals, separate negotiations with trade partners to boost immigration, and re-interpreting provisions that already exist in ways that expand immigration. None of these stand up to scrutiny, as the Senator’s GOP colleagues know.

Take his claim that language could be snuck into trade deals “and there would be no capacity for lawmakers to strike the offending provision.” The idea here—that TPA leaves Congress helpless and in the dark—is false.

Under the trade-promotion authority that has passed the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, Members can read the negotiating text and even attend negotiations with the U.S. delegation. Congress and the public get at least 60 days to review the text of any trade deal before the President can sign off on it, and Members can vote down the final deal if they don’t like it.

new atmMr. Sessions also fears that Mr. Obama could use a trade pact to overrule domestic law, but the Republican is way behind the times here. We raised that fear in the last Congress, and Republicans wrote language into the bill that U.S. law will prevail in the event of a conflict with an agreement. The trade authority bill adds that “any commitments not disclosed to Congress before an implementing bill is introduced” will have “no force of law.”

The Alabama tub-thumper also distorts a 2011 deal with South Korea to increase the duration of L-1 work visas, which allow a U.S. employer to transfer an executive or managerial employee from one of its affiliated offices overseas to an office in the U.S. But, as an analysis by House Ways and Means points out, the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement did not expand this program. U.S. law already allowed L-1 visas to be extended—in this case to five years from three.

In short, as Congressman Paul Ryan puts it, the notion that a trade deal will rewrite U.S. immigration law is “an urban legend.” But we think that’s too kind.

The Jeff Sessions who today cites President Obama as a reason for opposing trade legislation is the same Jeff Sessions who voted against giving the same authority to George W. Bush in 2002. In other words, this is one more protectionist politician who is indulging in the classic tactic of the anti-trade movement: scare mongering.

More troubling is that he is also a symptom of a return of an anti-growth strain within the GOP. This wing of the party opposes immigration and thus turns away thousands of the world’s brains who want to be American. It opposes trade because it fears the U.S. can’t compete. And it wants to use tax policy not to promote faster growth but to tilt the tax code to help Republican constituencies.

This is no way to rebuild a conservative majority. What America’s working families need most after the Obama era is a healthy, vibrant and growing economy that creates more jobs, increases paychecks and expands opportunity. A trade deal that would help open up a market of one billion people to the goods and services produced by the American worker is an excellent place to start.

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