By The Washington Post Editorial Board
Now that Republicans have gained control of Congress, no policy area is riper for bipartisan action than trade. President Obama’s trade representative, Michael Froman, is deeply engaged in trade-expansion talks with 11 Asia-Pacific nations, including Japan. A bipartisan legislative framework for speeding passage of a finished agreement has already been written.
The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership would result in greater U.S. access to Japan’s market for services and products, including long-excluded U.S. farm products. This means jobs and income for Americans and a faster pace of institutional reform for Japan’s huge but stagnant economy. The partnership also would strengthen the U.S. role as a strategic counterweight to China, which is trying to organize the region on terms favorable to its Communist government through a planned Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. Separately, the United States is pursuing a tariff-slashing deal with the European Union that could receive a boost from successful talks in Asia.
In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), former senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), then the Finance Committee chairman, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the Finance Committee’s ranking Republican — produced a bill to renew “fast-track” procedures, under which the House and Senate vote on a trade agreement without amendments or filibusters. These procedures, which were last approved in 2002 and which lapsed in 2007, have helped both Republican and Democratic presidents conclude 14 trade agreements since 1974; fast-track authority assures other countries that any deal they strike with the executive branch won’t be undone by Congress.
There are perennial concerns in Congress that fast-track cedes too much authority to the president. But the legislators who rolled out the bill last January addressed those worries. They added responding to trading partners’ currency manipulation to the formal list of U.S. negotiating goals and set up mechanisms for House and Senate members to observe and advise Mr. Obama’s negotiators. The legislation incorporated labor and environmental standards on the same basis that Congress had accepted under the previous fast-track bill.
Mr. Obama hailed the bill in his State of the Union address, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), never a fan of fast-track and always wary of offending free-trade critics like organized labor in an election year, poured cold water on it. The administration sent Mr. Baucus to China as ambassador, and his replacement as Finance chairman, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), attached little urgency to the bill. It fizzled amid the general legislative stagnation of a hyper-political season.
Of the bill’s three authors, only Mr. Hatch will remain in the new Congress. But the others’ absence should cause no delay; if the bipartisan bill that emerged in January was good enough for Republicans then, it should still be good enough now. This is a crucial measure that leaders of the new Congress can and should take off the shelf, pass and send to Mr. Obama for his signature.