The Obama administration is nearing the end of negotiations on the biggest free trade deal in US history, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The stakes are high: The pact affects the United States and 11 other countries, domestic policy areas ranging from intellectual property rights to product safety and environmental regulations, and $26 trillion in annual economic output. But in order to secure the deal, President Barack Obama says he wants Congress to grant him permission to sign the final trade agreement, which Congress has not yet seen, without congressional input. A coalition of about 174 conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the House signaled this week they would likely vote against giving those trade powers to the president.
The US trade representative Michael Froman and Obama want to finalize the TPP by the end of the year and are pushing Congress to pass legislation soon that grants the president something called fast-track authority, which would allow him to sign the final trade agreement without Congress making any amendments to the pact. If Obama gets what he wants, Congress may not even be able to read the final version of the massive trade deal in its entirety until after lawmakers have signed away their rights to influence it. At that point, the two chambers will only be allowed an up-or-down vote to implement the international pact into domestic law. The administration says fast-track authority will assure other countries that the deal the United States has committed to after three years of negotiations won’t be dismantled by American lawmakers who dislike some of the provisions. No major trade agreement has been finalized without it.
Trust him? No. It’s not about Obama personally; Congress gave fast-track authority to Bill Clinton, and to George W. Bush. But the House Democrats who oppose this — and the overwhelming majority of the opponents are Dems — say. Establishment Republicans tend to support fast-track authority, but some Tea Partiers are standing with the Dems. More:
Many conservative Republicans—usually fans of free trade—feel the same way. “For two hundred years of our nation’s history, Congress led our nation’s trade policy,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and 22 Republicans in the House wrote in a letter sent to the president Tuesday. “However, recent presidents have seized Congress’ constitutional trade authority and also ‘diplomatically legislated’…using…’Fast Track.'”
“Conservatives have shown themselves to instinctively oppose anything coming out of the Obama White House. So their opposition is not surprising,” Adam Hersh, a trade expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, says in an email. But he adds that the Democratic opposition is new. “We’re seeing the culmination of dissatisfaction with persistent poor trading outcomes for the US economy” such as job outsourcing, he says, and the feeling that Congress has been “kept in the dark.”
I’m willing to hear the counterarguments, but in general, I’m not in favor of giving this or any president the authority to approve something so enormous and consequential without Congress even seeing it. I could be wrong, but it seems that we’ve had enough trusting political and business elites always to operate in the best interests of the American people.
[H/T: Reader Surly T.]
UPDATE: A reader — Megan McArdle, actually — who actually knows something about economics writes:
Fast track doesn’t let the president approve a treaty by himself. It just means that Congress has to vote up or down–they can’t amend the treaty. It’s 100% necessary to any trade treaty, because without it, congress will get busy larding it with special protections for their favorite interest groups. Since the treaty has to be negotiated with several hundred other nations, that’s the same as killing it: the president cannot go back and say “But farm state senators wanted corn subsidies, and California put in tougher IP protections . . . ”
Congress still has to vote to approve, and sometimes they don’t. And the treaty does get negotiated with an eye to what Congress will pass (including lots of discussions with congresspeople).
This isn’t about curbing an abuse of power. It’s about Democrats who dislike free trade because of their roots in the labor movement, and Tea Partiers who want to give the president a black eye.