Friday, June 5, 2015

Thinking about Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

If Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a huge trade compact) pass, they will do so because of overwhelming Republican support in Congress.  Only 14 Democrats supported TPA in the Senate, and few House Democrats seem inclined to back TPP, so the ball is in Republicans' court here.  As House leaders scramble for votes to give the president Trade Promotion Authority in hopes of formulating some Trans-Pacific Partnership, here are four interlocking questions that Republicans and conservatives should keep in mind:
  • Are TPA and the TPP good for the nation?
  • Are TPA and the TPP in accord with conservative principles?
  • Will TPA further disrupt the already unsettled Constitutional balance of powers between the president and the Congress?
  • Are TPA and the TPP good for the Republican Party?
I will leave to the side for the moment the question of the economic benefits of the TPP.  In part, these benefits can't be ascertained because we don't know the details of the TPP.  But I will mention in passing that numerous trade agreements over the past few decades have fallen well short of the promises of many of their proponents.  For instance, the 2010 trade agreement with South Korea has led, according to the Economic Policy Institute, to an increased trade deficit with South Korea and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs--all for a 1.8% growth in exports over the first three years (the trade deficit almost doubled during that time period).

Likewise, without knowing the details of the TPP, we can't say whether the TPP is in accord with conservative principles.  However, it is also worth noting that, on the whole, much of what has been called "free trade" in recent decades has actually undermined the principles of the market, as I've suggested before.  The media has interestingly shifted from describing supporters of the TPP as "free traders" to "pro-trade," which is probably a more accurate description--because the Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to be an international agreement about managed (not free) trade.  Perhaps that managed trade will be in the national interest (and perhaps not), but we shouldn't call it "free trade."

Regarding presidential power: Trade Promotion Authority does give considerable authority to the president.  Under TPA, a trade agreement submitted to Congress can't be amended or filibustered, which substantially limits congressional influence.  It's true that rules like TPA have been in effect in the past.  As the Congressional Research Service noted in its very helpful write-up of TPA, presidents since FDR have used increased authority to negotiate trade deals.

The current administration, though, has tried to push presidential authority to extreme lengths.  The Obama administration has attempted to rewrite laws using regulatory agencies and claimed its right to nullify laws at policy whim.  The mammoth TPP could contain passages that a president--including Barack Obama's successors--could use to further aggrandize his or her power.  Moreover, the language of the TPP could have loopholes that could allow the executive to take even more direct control of domestic policy.

A close attention to legislative language will be crucial in trying to keep an executive in check.  Congressional allies of the TPP have advocated for TPA, but many of these TPA/TPP allies have apparently not even read the evolving draft of the TPP.  A lack of trust surrounds negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has not been helped by the secrecy of the Obama administration.  Moreover, while many congressional Republicans have proclaimed how little they trust the administration, many of these same Republicans are now working to pass TPA, which would give the president increased authority and realize one of his key second-term ambitions.

This brings us to the question of whether TPA and the TPP would be good for the GOP.  Obviously, partisan concerns pale before the national interest and ethical/philosophical obligations, but electoral consequences are at least worth thinking about.  The fact that the president is of the opposing party is not a sufficient reason for Republicans to block a major administrative objective; a policy measure that is good for the country and in accord with sound principles would be worth supporting no matter the party of the president.  But, if a piece of legislation is more mixed, Republicans should be far less enthusiastic about it.

In the wake of the failure of 2012, many Republicans thought that the party should do more to reach out to the middle and working classes.  A trade agenda that further undermines the working class would run afoul of this aim.  Moreover, it seems fairly likely that the hollowing out of the nation's industrial workforce over the past few decades has been electorally problematic for the GOP.  The growth of economic uncertainty in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio has made these states much harder for Republicans to win at the presidential level.  Policy measures that would further damage the economic interests of American workers could put Republicans farther away from a sustainable governing majority.

Polling on the TPP and TPA is surprisingly sparse, but these polls suggest that many voters--especially in the Rustbelt (which the GOP could stand to do much better in)--have serious doubts about the current trade regime.  Polling suggests that many voters are skeptical about giving more trade authority to the president.  A PPP poll finds that voters in Ohio are rather hostile to the TPP (nearly two-thirds oppose it).  Many in the grassroots left oppose TPP/TPA, but opponents of these measures on the insurgent right include Laura Ingraham, Michelle Malkin, many Breitbart writers, and the Conservative Review team.

Ultimately, I think that there are legitimate reasons both to oppose and to support TPP/TPA (Ramesh Ponnuru has been one of the more persuasive conservative supporters).  As Republican House members consider whether or not to support TPA, they should not be afraid to ask tough questions.  Nor should they buy the idea that skepticism about the TPP or TPA is the product of economic ignorance or intellectual weakness.  Legislative due diligence often demands a tough-minded resistance to inherited dogma.

In the Popeye universe, the character Wimpy would famously promise, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."  In many respects, Trade Promotion Authority offers a similar deal: allies of TPA want us to give the president increased executive power today in exchange for potential economic growth tomorrow.  That growth may or may not come, but the expansion of presidential power is guaranteed.  Perhaps that's a deal worth making, but we should be honest about the uncertainties of that trade.

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