It’s not what you think – even though this is the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. We’re not on a fast track, but something called “trade promotion authority” might get us there. Trade promotion authority is a euphemism for what was once, more honestly, called “fast track authority”.
Time was, back in the days when trade had a bipartisan support, the President would ask the Congress for authority to negotiate new trade agreements and then bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. No amendments allowed. That was the “fast track”. Without the fast track, any trade agreement is subject to all the amendments that the House or Senate care to load onto it. Meaning that an administration first had to negotiate trade agreements with other countries and, once that was wrapped up, had to negotiate them again with his own Congress. This often necessitated taking the agreement back to another government, hat in hand, confessing that the Congress was forcing our negotiators things.
This happened with the free trade agreement with South Korea that finally was approved by Congress last year. President Obama refused to take that agreement, as well as those with Panama and Colombia, to the Congress because he knew he would have a tough time getting them through unamended. And besides, they had been negotiated under his Republican predecessor – so they must have something awful in them. We finally worked through that, but how many years did it take?
No country wants its trade negotiators to waste time talking to the Americans unless they have some prospect of getting an agreement that the Congress won’t tamper with. This is part of the reason that the Obama Administration has failed to launch any new bilateral free trade talks in all these years, the only major trading power not to do so. But there is talk that the negotiations for an expanded Trans Pacific Partnership may bear fruit, if not this fall then perhaps next year. This is a multilateral negotiation with careful balancing of interests and, given the recent entry of Japan, Canada and Mexico to the TPP talks, I think the process will take considerably longer than the White House says. Much that was decided among the original negotiators will have to be reopened with these new players.
But the White House sees that someday it will need to take a TPP agreement to the Congress. And behind that a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It may be beginning to dawn on them that they won’t want Congress opening up up every section and topic in those agreements and that they might want a fast track in place. Excuse me, I mean trade promotion authority.Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has asked for and received fast track authority because earlier Congresses realized that you can’t negotiate with the spectre of a renegotiation by 535 politicians rising behind you. President Obama and our current Congress may come to realize that, but they will need to be prompted and the true ideologues pushed aside. So I am hapyt to see that a consortium to support trade promotion authority as been formed under the leadership of the Business Roundtable. The Trade Benefits America Coalition was launched Monday, timed to celebrate World Trade Week. Coalition members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, Coalition of Services Industries, Emergency Committee for American Trade, National Association of Manufacturers, National Foreign Trade Council, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Council for International Business. They are likely to add more members quickly.
Congress last passed trade promotion authority in 2002 and time expired on it in 2007. This past six years has seen only limited negotiating activity by the United States. One result is that our chief negotiators, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representatives, has lost good, experienced negotiators and is known in Washington to have just about the lowest morale of any government agency. It is time for America to again be a major player in trade talks.
Personal note: I was a U.S. trade negotiator in the Tokyo Round talks in the 1970s. I won’t forget that we feverishly drafted positions and goals for the United States, and proposals that became the foundation of the many agreements that came out of the Tokyo Round. But, after preparing everything and itching to begin negotiating, we were stymied for a full year – sitting on our hands waiting for the Congress to give us fast track authority. Without it, no one wanted to waste time talking to us. Tough to negotiate with nobody on the other side of the table.