Taking the Right Fast Track on Trade

One aim of President’s Obama’s trip to Asia is coming to agreement on a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. To enhance that prospect, the President has asked that Congress resurrect “fast-track” trade negotiation authority, which puts trade agreements to up-or-down votes, with no amendments.

Without fast-track authority, such negotiations make little headway, because, as Peter Hakim has noted, “countries will be more cautious, even fearful, that whatever concessions and agreements they reach could be for naught if the United States Congress disagrees with them.” But many Democrats want just such a result, to maintain their ability to protect “pet” constituencies, and so oppose fast-track authority even for their own President.

Unfortunately, opposing a free trade deal because it might actually allow people to do what would most benefit them in the absence of government-imposed barriers is the opposite of good policy for advancing the general welfare, which cannot come from beggaring some Americans to enrich others. The real danger from a trade deal is that moves toward freer trade will be neutered, and new restrictions created, in the fine print or bureaucratic implementation.

Fortunately, there is a way to give the President the ability to negotiate treaties to do what they promise–reduce trade restrictions–but close the door to deals that would harm Americans, without giving Congress the ability to amend them to death. Instead of unlimited fast-track authority, the President should be delegated one-way fast-track authority. A one-way fast-track to freer trade would guarantee that any trade agreement that only reduces current trade restrictions or makes property rights more secure (paving the way for freer trade) would be considered without amendments. Any agreement or treaty that imposed any new trade restrictions, including side deals made as part of the negotiations, would have to be submitted to Congress, subject to amendments.

Granting one-way fast-track authority on trade would have several advantages. It would remove the President’s ability to continually blame Congress for his lack of progress toward freer trade. It would give him the powers he claims to be seeking, but only toward the goal he professes, forcing him to deliver on his rhetoric.

It also would reduce congressional posturing on free trade. Voting on one-way fast-track authority would be a “clean” vote on free trade alone. It would keep those who claim to favor free trade, but always find some excuse (the environment, labor standards, etc.) to vote against it, from hiding behind such protectionist excuses. Those other issues would still be open to separate negotiations in Congress, subject to traditional legislative rules.

One-way fast-track would also undermine the common treaty trick of imposing new restrictions immediately, but delaying market opening moves into the future, when they may well be rescinded. It would reinforce the spines of American trade negotiators, who would otherwise face strong pressures to pay off domestic special interests in search of support for a deal. It would also undermine attempts by other countries’ negotiators to extract such payoffs, since they couldn’t be offered without risk that they would be amended out of existence in Congress. It would keep future administrations from hijacking negotiations to a dramatically different agenda than advertised, setting a precedent requiring treaties to deliver on the rhetoric used to ask for more power.

Giving the President broad fast-track authority would provide the prospect of both benefits and harms to Americans, now and in the future. One-way fast-track authority, however, would defuse the threat of harm, while advancing America toward the goal of free trade. As the world’s largest exporter of free trade rhetoric, it is time for America to take the one-way fast-track to living up to our words.

(Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu.)

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