Debate over trade promotion authority (TPA) continues to simmer as the House of Representatives gears up for a vote to decide if it will follow the Senate’s lead and pass fast-track authority. Presidents require the ability to negotiate with the confidence that Congress will schedule timely votes on agreements reached in principle with foreign governments, and that it will do so without derailing negotiations by inserting its own language. Restoring that lapsed authority will mean better government efficiency and increased prosperity through greater international trade liberalization.
TPA simply provides that when the president submits a trade deal, Congress must in turn give it an up-or-down vote without amendment. It also stipulates that any agreement must meet particularly objectives established by Congress. In other words Congress has the final say, but can’t muck up the negotiating process with backseat driving.
The Senate passed TPA with bipartisan support, but some conservatives worry that it grants too much power to the president. That’s a reasonable concern given President Obama’s demonstrated disregard for Constitutional boundaries, but is unwarranted in this case. Fast-track authority doesn’t transfer power between branches, it simply provides assurances for America’s negotiating partners that their efforts are not wasted when talking with the U.S. government. Negotiating partners aren’t likely to make concessions knowing Congress can turn around and amend what they agreed to on a whim.
America needs one voice negotiating overseas, not 536 of them.
Trade partners understand that Congress has the right to approve any agreement reached, but they shouldn’t have to negotiate by proxy with a legislative body not directly involved in the discussion. TPA would also require the administration to keep Congress informed every step of the way. Congress in turn maintains every right to reject agreements under a fast-track system, and should do so when they don’t advance American interests. All TPA asks is that Congress fulfill its Constitutional role to review and, if it desires, to enact trade agreements.
Conservatives once supported a similar practical improvement to the exercise of overlapping responsibilities between branches when Congressional Republicans delivered on a Contract with America promise and gave President Clinton a line-item veto. They understood that the point was not to empower a president who was also a political opponent, but to improve the system in a way that advanced conservative principles. That’s exactly what TPA does by streamlining the path toward freer global markets.
Some opponents of TPA are really fighting a proxy battle over trade liberalization. Certain populist forces from both the left and right oppose the as-of-yet unfinished Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and see denying trade promotion authority as a means to prevent its eventual passage.
Some oppose the trade agreement because they just don’t believe in free trade, and support instead protectionist measures in the name of job preservation. They are simply wrong, as protectionism doesn’t work and free trade enhances global prosperity. The breaking down of trade barriers has helped raise billions out of poverty, and further liberalization will increase global access to food and medicine, promote innovation, and reduce cronyism. Simply put, it makes the world a wealthier and fairer place.
Others support free trade in principle but not particular trade agreements, which can represent a flawed attempt to implementation. They could well be right. The Trans-Pacific Partnership might be a raw deal. But we won’t know until it reaches Congress. Once there, the proper way to demonstrate opposition is to vote against it.
Whatever opponents’ motives for disliking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it’s not a justification for denying trade promotion authority. Neither are concerns about the political balance of power. TPA has been granted before and didn’t lead to executive abuse. It doesn’t enhance the president’s power; it enhances America’s ability to win concessions at the negotiating table.