Sometimes, politics deals Republicans a winning hand, and that confuses some of them, who then set about trying to figure out a way to lose—which is what is happening with the current debate over the president’s fast-track trade-promotion authority (TPA) and the proposed trade-liberalization deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
TPA, which simply ensures that a trade pact negotiated by the president receives an up-or-down vote in Congress, ought to be utterly uncontroversial: Trade liberalization is generally good for the United States. TPA simply ensures that a proposed trade accord gets a vote rather than die a death by a thousand cuts or suffocation. Some Republicans have argued that any unnecessary delegation of powers to President Obama is to be avoided, because the president is a habitual abuser of his powers and generally untrustworthy. These concerns are not without merit, but TPA does not bind Congress to the president’s proposal—it only ensures that they are obliged to vote on it. There is at present no reason to believe that TPP is a bad deal, but if it comes in ugly, then Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, can easily stop it. A precedent of opposing TPA per se would be destructive—Republicans should bear in mind that Barack Obama will not be president forever. A President Rubio, President Cruz, President Walker (etc.) might make very good use of TPA, which ought to be maintained as an ordinary procedural mechanism.
That’s the policy. The politics are even better for Republicans, because TPA strengthens their hand in the matter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Obama wants a Pacific trade deal, and Republicans want (or should want) a Pacific trade deal, too. Congressional Democrats are generally hostile to such liberalizing measures, meaning that President Obama knows that if he wants to cross TPP off his to-do list he must bring in a deal that Republicans will find acceptable—more than acceptable: worth fighting for. The best course for the GOP is to fight for TPA and to take affirmative steps to let the president know the TPP limitations within which he is working; Republicans should tell him, in effect: “This is our wish list, these are our must-haves, and these are our deal-breakers.”
The president knows that he will have more success negotiating with Republicans than he will with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Republicans ought to appreciate that they will have more success negotiating with President Obama than with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. For once, they have the undisputed upper hand, a position that some of them apparently find confusing.
There are complaints about the way in which TPP is being negotiated, particularly about the secrecy and lack of transparency in the process; these are legitimate concerns, though hardly new ones. The solution is not for Republicans to abandon TPP but to take an insistent course of action to help shape it, which indeed many of them have. And then they should allow ample time for delving into the pact and debating its merits before scheduling a vote—something that would provide a welcome contrast to the Democrats’ “pass it to find out what’s in it” mode of parliamentary procedure.
Moreover, those who worry that the president will lard the bill too heavily with green-tinted wishful thinking and sops to the union bosses should bear in mind that he will have to get those measures past the other potential TPP signatories before he even pitches them to Congress. We do not think that Singapore is eager to Davis-Baconify its labor market or that Canada is going to join a jihad against fossil fuels.
TPA is not a way to unleash the president; it is a way to constrain congressional Democrats, whose hostility toward more open international trade is partly ideological and partly self-serving. That free trade is generally good for the country does not mean, of course, that every proposed trade pact is desirable. With TPA, Republicans can kill a bad deal; without it, they have effectively no chance of endorsing a good one.