The Obama administration recently informed Congress of plans to launch its first round of trade talks. In March, it will start negotiations with a group of Asian-Pacific nations, perhaps with an eye toward striking a deal at a 2011 summit in Hawaii.
That’s all well and good. The United States has seen its market share slip in Asia. Removing trade barriers would boost exports for U.S. manufacturers and farmers and create jobs for American workers.
Yet the White House can’t sell this potential accord at home or abroad because President Obama lacks an indispensable legislative tool. Congressional Republicans should lead an effort to give it to him.
In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, this tool was called “fast track.” In the decade that has just passed, it went by “trade promotion authority.” Whatever the name, the concept is simple: It requires trade agreements to go before Congress for an up-or-down vote, and Congress has a time-certain for that vote.
Every president since Gerald Ford has had this power--until now. Obama is the first not to possess it. Trade promotion authority expired on the watch of George W. Bush and Democrats in Congress refused to renew it.
The GOP should push to restore it, finding allies on the other side of the congressional aisle and working in cooperation with the White House.
Republicans fell from power because voters lost confidence in their ability to govern. As they try to reboot in 2010--possibly with a serious bid for control of the House of Representatives--they would be wise to identify opportunities in which they can demonstrate bipartisan leadership.
Free trade is about more than political advantage, of course. It’s for the good of the country. Unfortunately, without this special legislative mechanism, the president’s ability to negotiate new agreements is neutered.
Imagine trying to buy a car from a dealership. Once you’ve finished the haggling, the sales representative usually has to get a manager’s consent. This is essentially the role Congress plays: It has to approve any pact negotiated by the executive branch.
The difficulty with Congress is that it’s made up of 535 managers--or, perhaps more accurately, micromanagers. Their instinct is not merely to approve or disapprove. Just as they routinely lard up legislation with earmarks, they would tinker with trade agreements. It would become virtually impossible to conclude anything.
Parliamentary governments avoid this problem. Prime ministers can enforce their will on backbenchers. This is not the case in the United States, with its form of divided government.
Other countries know this. They won’t negotiate seriously with the United States without knowing that it has an effective method for getting a final agreement through Congress.
It may make sense to come up with a new name for this legislative tool. Former U.S. trade diplomat Carla Hills once joked that “fast track” was a lousy term because trade talks were never fast and they were rarely on track. I’ve never cared for “trade promotion authority.” It sounds like an obscure federal agency.
How about the Bipartisan Trade Initiative? Or the Congressional Export Opportunity Review? Or Dean Kleckner’s Bright Idea?
Now you know why I didn’t pursue a career in advertising: Someone with a mind for marketing probably can do a lot better. The important thing is to get the policy right. As Shakespeare might have said, a legislative trade tool by any other name is just as useful.
The Obama administration’s plan to pursue a trade deal with the Trans-Pacific Partnership is wise. It’s also bold. Many of the president’s fellow Democrats will oppose him because they are beholden to the special-interest protectionism of Big Labor. If a new trade agreement is to become a reality, Obama will need help from Republicans.
The best trade agreements are win-win opportunities for all of the partners involved. So is trade legislation, but only if the White House and congressional Republicans have the foresight and courage to set aside their differences and take it up.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org