Published : 2014-01-02 19:46
Updated : 2014-01-02 19:46
President Barack Obama wants the power to negotiate free-trade treaties on a fast track. With Trade Promotion Authority, he would have a good chance of clinching huge trade pacts now being hammered out with Europe and Asia. Yet Congress may not give him that authority ― for all the wrong reasons.
Over the years, Congress has recognized that negotiating trade deals requires special legislative procedures. Under ordinary rules, a trade deal would be subject to Capitol Hill amendments that in effect enable Congress to reopen negotiations after they are concluded. In that event, knowing that America’s representatives couldn’t deliver on their promises, trade partners would have no incentive to make concessions at the bargaining table. As a practical matter, making a deal becomes impossible.
TPA, as it is known, also ensures that Congress considers any trade deals on a reasonable timetable, not letting them languish indefinitely. Under TPA, Congress can reject a deal the administration cuts, but a few opponents can’t block a vote.
Many Democrats oppose free trade, on the misguided theory that fair and open competition hurts American workers. In fact, opening markets abroad helps America’s economy grow and create the jobs it desperately needs. Nevertheless, lawmakers have been declaring their opposition in a flurry of recent letters. Last month, 151 House Democrats pledged to stand against their party’s president and thwart his efforts to secure TPA.
Just as disappointing, 22 House Republicans also declared their opposition. Some hail from union-dominated districts that want to preserve an inefficient status quo. Some simply don’t trust the White House. In their letter, they claim that TPA flouts the Constitution by ceding legislative power to the executive branch.
That’s nonsense. Congress and the president share constitutional authority over trade and international agreements. TPA empowers Congress to establish negotiating objectives, and enhances its ability to set priorities. The U.S. is legally bound to a trade agreement only if Congress votes to approve it. TPA, which has been essential to reaching trade deals since the 1930s, has proven to be fully consistent with the Constitution and supportive of U.S. sovereignty.
The last TPA authorization expired in 2007. The delay in reauthorizing it to some extent reflects congressional dysfunction. To a greater extent, however, the delay results from the Obama administration’s ineffectiveness at pursuing its agenda.
The president made no push for TPA in his first four years. Recently, he has spoken out about the need for it. But he has not twisted arms on Capitol Hill. If TPA is the high priority that it should be for his administration, Obama needs to demand it from members of both parties. Along with immigration reform, free-trade deals could be Obama’s best hope for a positive legacy in his second term.
Within months the White House hopes to finish talks on a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with a group of Asia-Pacific nations. Talks with the European Union on the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are progressing too. Those deals would eliminate barriers and promote economic activity between the U.S. and key allies. The upside is huge: Billions of dollars in new business would be generated if these pacts come to pass.
Yet given the special interests that oppose free trade, neither deal stands much of a chance in Congress without TPA. Consider farm tariffs, one of the most frustrating roadblocks to any free-trade pact with Europe or Asia. The agriculture lobby here and abroad has long succeeded in imposing some of the least competitive public policies of any industry. Although farm protectionism hurts the vast majority of the world’s citizens, standing up to clout-heavy constituencies such as U.S. sugar magnates requires extraordinary political courage. TPA is essential for overcoming the inevitable fight against vested interests that are determined to advance themselves at the expense of the nation’s good.
Federal lawmakers and the president have to make their case with much more gusto than we have seen so far. Congress could OK a Trade Promotion Authority bill in the first few months of 2014. But that won’t happen without leadership on Capitol Hill and, especially, from the White House. Now’s the time.