Presidents seeking free trade agreements are generally anxious for congressional approval of “fast-track authority,” which forces lawmakers to give an up-or-down vote on whatever is produced in the discussions.
Without such authority, Congress can scuttle the president’s efforts with even the smallest amendment, since any changes would have to be taken back to the other negotiating partners and essentially reboot the process from scratch, thereby making it next to impossible to achieve anything at all.
In recent years, Republicans have generally been more supportive of free trade than Democrats, although elements of protectionism can be found in some factions of the GOP. Still, one would expect that President Obama would have little difficulty in persuading lawmakers to grant him fast-track authority as he enters into negotiations next week for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would open markets for American farm goods in several Asian economies.
Such authority would also be crucial to the success of an upcoming European trade deal. Studies have found that both deals could produce $200 billion of revenue for the United States and $600 billion globally, which would clearly be in the best interests of both the American economy, and the global economy.
That may not convince leadership in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after the State of the Union that he has no plans to bring fast-track authority to the floor of the Senate for a vote. His willingness to challenge the executive leader of his own party may be a sign of just how weakened this administration has been by the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. With midterm elections on tap this year, Democrats are eager to put some distance between themselves and an increasingly unpopular president. That includes Sen. Reid, who faces the very real possibility that he’ll be Senate minority leader in the next Congress.
It’s not difficult, then, to see some political calculus driving Sen. Reid’s reluctance to support the president on this issue, but that doesn’t mean his opposition is serving the best interests of the nation. If this is posturing for political advantage, it feeds into growing public cynicism about what happens in Washington. We believe these agreements would provide a significant boost to the struggling economy, and it would be narrow-minded were they thrown off track for short-term political gain.
The relative merits of freer trade are worthy of robust debate. Sen. Reid may have meritorious arguments to bring to such a deliberation. But given the promised economic benefit, the momentum building for such pacts and the rare opportunity for bipartisan cooperation, we would urge the Senate leadership to allow the issue of fast-track authority to come to the floor of the Senate for full debate and a vote.