By Dean Kleckner: Des Moines, Iowa
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney disagree over budgets, health care, and what to do about unrest in the Middle East. When they meet for their first presidential debate on October 3 in Denver, they’ll have a brand-new opportunity to highlight their many differences.
Wouldn’t it be nice if they spent at least a few moments finding common ground? Voters are tired of gridlock in Washington and it would hearten them to see these ideological rivals describe areas of agreement.
I would suggest they start with international trade, which both men claim they want to expand. Specifically, the candidates should say that no matter who takes the oath of office in January, the next president must have Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).
The United States simply can’t forge new free-trade agreements without it.
The idea behind TPA is simple: It lets the president’s team negotiate with other countries, find progressive consensus and make a deal, and then submit the proposed pacts to Congress for up-or-down votes.
TPA is a practical tool that allows our trade diplomats to pry open new markets for American-made goods and services, helping everyone from farmers and manufacturers to insurance agents and Hollywood moviemakers. The up-or-down vote is essential because it respects the authority of Congress to weigh in on pending agreements but also prevents individual legislators from trying to reopen trade talks after they’ve been completed. (They’ll say to "make improvements".)
In other words, it gives the president and his administration the genuine authority to negotiate.
Think of it this way: When you want to purchase a car, you visit an auto dealership and search for a sales representative. (Actually, the sales reps always seem to find you. That’s just how those guys are.)
Would you bother to negotiate with a sales rep that lacks the authority to sell vehicles? Or one who wants to continue bargaining even after you’ve come to terms and shaken hands? Of course not. It would waste your time.
That’s how other countries view TPA. If our president doesn’t have it, they won’t walk through the equivalent of America’s dealership door.
Last year, President Obama finally sent and Congress approved trade accords with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. We’re just starting to see the economic benefits. Yet these agreements were negotiated when George W. Bush was president, back when TPA was still in force. It expired in 2007, which means that President Obama hasn’t had this important tool for his entire term in office. Right now, he is the only president not to have enjoyed TPA for at least a portion of his presidency since Lyndon Baines Johnson--and LBJ didn’t have it because TPA had not yet been invented.
So it’s no coincidence that the current administration has yet to negotiate a single tariff-reducing trade pact.
President Obama means well--and he likes to talk up the tremendous potential of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an accord that would improve trade ties between the United States and several economic partners along the Pacific Rim. Without TPA, however, it won’t ever leave the drawing board. Here’s a motto to consider: No TPA, no TPP.
This alphabet-soup sloganeering may point to part of the problem. TPA just isn’t a great name for this device, though it’s arguably an improvement over "fast track negotiating authority," which was what everyone called it through the 1990s. Perhaps it needs rebranding once again. How about Free Trade Fair Vote?
Whatever the semantics, the next president should have TPA. Romney has called for it plainly. Obama hasn’t spoken as openly, though his administration has signaled that if the president is re-elected, he would like to have TPA in 2013.
So imagine the power of the moment, at the October 3 debate, if both candidates were to agree on the urgent need for TPA. Each man could promise that if defeated in November, he will try to sway the members of his party to support TPA for the victor.
The candidates will still disagree over many other details about how to create jobs and revive the economy--but in this gesture of magnanimity, they will have done the United States a great bipartisan service.
Dean Kleckner volunteers as Chairman Emeritus for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org