I find I can learn a lot by graphically examining legislative voting patterns. The recent enactment of implementing legislation for three Free Trade Agreements gives us a wonderful opportunity to compare the two political parties and the House and Senate on free trade.


The Bush Administration negotiated free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Colombia, and Panama.  South Korea’s economy is big enough that the Korea FTA was economically important not just for South Korea, but also for the U.S. FTAs with smaller Colombia and Panama are important to the U.S. for several non-economic reasons:

  • These countries are our friends and allies (so is South Korea).
  • There is a long run philosophical battle for the shape of Central America, with Venezuela’s Chavez and Cuba’s Castro brothers on the other side. Helping Central American countries that want to expand freedom, democracy, capitalism, and free trade helps our side in that broader struggle.
  • It is important for the U.S. to send a signal to smaller nations of the world that we will pursue free trade with countries whose economies are quite small relative to ours.
  • We also want to promote the idea of free trade generally.

Upon taking office President Obama said all three FTAs were flawed and sent his trade representative to renegotiate each one.  Even after renegotiations concluded in late 2010, the President sat on them for many months.  He sent implementing legislation for all three agreements to Congress in October of this year.  All three were ratified by Congress in less than three weeks.

The two years of renegotiations were politically convenient for President Obama, as they allowed him to avoid asking Speaker Pelosi to bring up legislation that most of her caucus opposed.  The following vote analysis will show this.

Partisan support ratios

Since I want to focus principally on comparing the two parties, I think that looking at partisan support ratios for the FTAs.


  • 219 House Republicans voted for the Korea FTA, while 21 voted against it, for a ratio of 10:1 House Rs FOR.
  • 66 House Democrats voted for the Korea FTA, while 123 voted against it, for a ratio of 2.2:1 House Ds AGAINST.
  • As a whole, 278 House Members vote for the Korea FTA, while 151 voted against it, for a ratio of 1.8:1 House Members FOR.

I found that looking at raw vote counts gets klunky.  Look at how much easier it is when we compare ratios and have an apples-to-apples comparison of different groupings:


House Rs

House Ds

1.8:1 FOR

10:1 FOR


Even better, we can look at it as a graph:


This means that for every 1 House Republican who voted against the Korea FTA, 10 of them voted for it.  In contrast, for every 1 House Democrat who voted for the Korea FTA, 2.2 of them voted against it.

Obviously, an FTA would pass the House only if its total support ratio (Rs+Ds) is greater than 1:1.

Now this voting pattern is not unusual for the House on any legislation.  As a majoritarian body, the House is naturally partisan. Bills usually pass the House relying mostly if not entirely on the majority party’s votes.  We can see that this is the case for all three FTAs in October:


We can learn a few things from this graph:

  • In each case, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the FTA.  The lowest ratio was for Korea, and that was still 10:1 FOR.
  • In each case a majority of House Democrats voted against the FTA (that’s why the ratios are measured as AGAINST).  But also in each case, the Democratic party split more deeply than Republicans (since the ratios are closer than 1:1).
  • As a working hypothesis from looking at these House votes, we can conclude that House Democrats are generally against free trade, but House Democrats are less unified as a party than the pro-free trade House Republicans.
  • We also have a plausible explanation for why President Obama took so long.  All three FTAs split his party deeply with most of his partisan allies opposed.  By taking two years to renegotiate the FTAs, he did not have to put his House allies in an uncomfortable position while he was relying on them to enact the stimulus, health care, and Dodd/Frank.

Now let’s test these hypotheses by looking at the corresponding Senate votes:


This is more interesting than the House vote.  Remember that Democrats are still in the majority in the Senate.

  • In all three cases Senate Republicans voted even more overwhelmingly for free trade than did House Republicans.  But for the Maine Republican Senators Snowe (2 nos) and Collins (1 no), Senate Republican support for all three FTAs was unanimous.
  • Unlike House Democrats, a majority of Senate Democrats voted for the Panama and Korea FTAs.  More Senate Ds voted no on Colombia than voted aye, but the ratio (1.4:1 AGAINST) was much closer than among House Ds (5:1 AGAINST).
  • Almost all Senate Republicans and a majority of Senate Democrats supported Panama and Korea, while the Colombia FTA leaned more heavily for passage on Republican votes.

I also did some aggregate tabulations, combining the votes of all three FTAs together.  This is useful for comparing the political parties in the aggregate.  It also gives more weight to the House than the Senate, since there are more House members than Senators.


These results won’t surprise anyone who has followed trade policy and politics in the U.S.

  • The Congress (House + Senate combined) voted 2:1 FOR the three trade agreements.
  • Republicans voted 21:1 FOR free trade.
  • Democrats voted 1.9:1 AGAINST free trade.

Can we extend the results from these three FTAs to a broader analysis of the two parties on free trade?  Yes and no.

  • The renegotiation and a Democrat in the White House provided more political cover for on-the-fence Democrats to vote aye.  That would suggest these ratios are a free trade high water mark for the Democratic party.
  • Partly offsetting this, many of the House Democrats who lost their seats in the 2010 tidal wave election were in more centrist/purple districts and may have been more free trade than those who survived the wave.  I think this factor is small relative to the first, however.
  • The above ratios are even more free trade than I expected from Republicans.  Protectionist Republicans tend to be from the South (textiles), and none of these FTAs economically threatened the American South.  I would generally guess between an 8:1 and a 12:1 FOR ratio for Congressional Republicans rather than the 21:1 that we saw in October.

Free trade in the U.S. results from a center-right legislative alliance.

  • In my experience the above analysis reflects a broad historic trend, at least over the past 15 years or so.  See the free trade vote here for a comparison.
  • In the U.S. free trade agreements pass the Congress with a broad center-right legislative alliance that includes almost all Republicans and splits Democrats roughly one-third for free trade and two-thirds against it.
  • When looking at all three FTAs combined, House Democrats voted 2.6:1 AGAINST free trade in October, even with a Democratic President supporting the FTAs.  You need a House Republican majority to get any free trade done.  There’s no way a Democratic Speaker can bring free trade legislation to the floor when her own party is so heavily opposed to it.
(photo credit: Aaron Morton)