These days, trade is not just about exports, imports, manufacturing and jobs. Apparently, trade is also at least a little bit about political favors.
Although House Republicans are expected to do most of the heavy lifting in providing votes to pass Trade Promotion Authority, President Obama has worked his personal touch to ensure his trade agenda does not fall by the wayside -- lobbying congressional Democrats to support what may turn out to be one of his lasting legacies during his second term in office.
One key presidential perk at Obama’s disposal: Air Force One.
So far, 18 House Democrats have come out in support of TPA, and Obama invited four of them to join him on board the flying Oval Office for his trip to the G-7 summit in Germany last weekend.
Reps. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Gerald Connolly, D-Va., Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, all accepted the offer to fly with the president on the Boeing VC-25 -- which is similar to a 747. Each lawmaker said they received the invitation seven to 10 days before departing on Saturday.
No Republicans joined the Democratic contingent on the G-7 trip, although some GOP lawmakers have been invited to fly on Air Force One from time to time during the Obama presidency.
For Connolly, a four-term Democrat, it was his first time joining the president on Air Force One. And the experience was clearly not lost on him.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, in many ways,” he said. “There you are in a big 747 -- with the president.”
Quigley and Himes both said the trip was their third time flying with Obama on AF1, but for each it was their first international trip on the aircraft.
“Of course, it’s fun to get on Air Force One and be with the president,” Himes acknowledged.
Johnson, a 12-term lawmaker, said she had flown on Air Force one “six or seven times” during the Clinton administration, and had even declined a “late” invitation from former President George W. Bush during his presidency because of a “scheduling conflict.”
“I thought it was valuable,” Johnson said of the weekend getaway. “It’s a compliment to get an invitation from the president.”
Connolly, who admitted he almost had to pinch himself because flying on Air Force One felt like he was in a movie, summed it up as an opportunity to get a senior seminar with the administration on some of its key foreign policy issues. He said Obama joined the lawmakers for about 20 minutes en route to Germany, and about 20 minutes on the way back, comparing notes on the summit, the upcoming TPA vote, Iraq, Ukraine, and the president’s remaining legislative agenda over the next 18 months.
“They wanted to make a bigger statement to reinforce the president’s commitment that he will have the backs of those in our caucus who step out and support the agreement,” Connolly said.
TPA, also known as "fast track," is a procedure that determines how an administration goes about getting a trade agreement and how Congress considers it.
Although each member of the foursome has publicly backed Obama on trade, Himes said the lawmakers also compared notes with the White House “on who we thought was potentially a yes vote but whose support is still up in the air.”
The group also attended several G-7 events, toured a BMW factory and spent time with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
“It’s rare that you get a chance to talk to Susan Rice, talk about international security issues with the president’s new deputy national security adviser [Avril Haines], ambassadors, the chief of staff,” Quigley said. “You’re so busy [in Washington], you rarely get a chance to sit down and talk about the trade bill, what it means and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
“Deep dive discussions are extraordinarily helpful,” he said. “You’re reminded of this when you travel on the plane.”
Since the excursion is considered “official business” and not campaign related, the cost of the flight falls on the taxpayer.
The Democratic quartet was treated to salmon and crab cakes on flight to Germany, and filet mignon on the return voyage.
“All very tasty, fattening food,” Johnson quipped.
Johnson bought her son and grandsons Air Force One golf balls and caps, and purchased a drink container for her daughter-in-law. She also bought some Air Force One coins and a bottle opener. All in all, she said, she dropped about $200 on AF1 gear.
“I didn’t feel like I was going for the ride,” Johnson said. “We had the opportunity to learn things and connect with researchers and see how respected the president is [abroad].”
Quigley said he snagged some presidential M&Ms for his interns and purchased an Air Force One cap.
Still, the lawmakers who joined Obama on the trip don’t view the experience merely as a reward for their support of the president’s trade agenda.
“How often does anyone get to spend that much time with that caliber and cadre of people?” Connolly asked. “We’re all under one roof for 17 or 18 hours, plus on the ground.”
“I took it more of [as] since there’s only 18 of us at this point, here we are. It reinforces the four of us to be better spokesmen on international issues and trade issues. I think that worked,” Quigley said. “You learn first-hand why trade relationships matter to the economy and why these relationships with the G-7 also affect us.”
The White House also does not view the flights as simply a reward but rather a way to engage members.
"Over the last year or so, we have redoubled our efforts to try to engage members of Congress in new and creative ways, and on recent foreign trips, the president has invited members of Congress to attend -- or to join him for those trips," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on the return flight.
“There’s some ‘holy cow, gee whiz’ aspects. You board Air Force One and you’ll feel that and see that. You land and everyone is taking pictures of the plane,” Quigley said. “The president is coming off [the plane] to music and fanfare. Ceremonies matter and some of that pomp and circumstance matters. It represents what our country is about. If you get caught up in it, it’s not a bad thing. Otherwise, you get cynical in this business.”
While many House Democrats are fearful support for trade could be toxic to their reelection efforts, the aura of a trip on Air Force One -- not to mention face time with the president -- is simply too valuable for others to pass up.
“To be invited to join the president on a foreign trip was a distinct honor that I’ll carry with me for rest of my life,” Connolly said.