President Obama’s strategy in pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been altogether characteristic of his Administration’s attitude: “My way or the highway.
So what were 26 freshmen Republican House members thinking when they recently signed a letter promising to work with the president on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – a mechanism that allows the TPP to receive just an up or down vote? Do these first-termers not realize that President Obama’s posture on trade policy represents the worst of all worlds, combining arrogance with incompetence while demonstrating little interest in soliciting advice from Congress as a co-equal branch of government.
Arrogance: The president’s de facto rejection of the normal TPA bargain. Historically, Congress sets the negotiating partners and objectives, is consulted regularly as a body, officially signs off on any concessions, and in exchange, gives up rights to amend or filibuster the final agreement. Because the president carries out Congress’s instructions, legislators have little or no reason to amend or filibuster the final deal.
But this president has been negotiating TPP for six years without asking Congress for authority to do so — and without any official, congressionally vetted set of negotiating partners or objectives. Only now, after TPP is 90 percent completed, is the president seeking permission for what he has already done.
Claims that Congress can still have input by granting TPA, also known as fast track, in the final stage of negotiations are nonsense. As are claims that Congress has been consulted: Informal conversations with handpicked Members, even leading Members, do not represent Congress as a whole speaking through a deliberate and deliberative process.
This stealth strategy explains why rank-and-file House Members can only glance at the proposed agreement under the direct scrutiny of unelected administration appointees.
Congress will be able to review all the documents, the Administration says, if it complies with Obama’s fast-track request. Then, after the horse is already out the barn, the president would in short order send executive branch-drafted bills — the so-called implementing legislation, which also cannot be amended or filibustered — directly to the House and Senate floors for rubber-stamp votes.
These strong-arm tactics resemble those deployed with the Affordable Care Act of 2010, when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admonished a hesitant Congress, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” At least that time the tactic didn’t garner any Republican votes. But because the slogan “free trade” is associated with TPA and TPP, many Republicans suspend all judgment and lurch like zombies toward what is actually an Obama government-managed trade bill.
By now Congressional Republicans should know better. The Obama administration has stonewalled Congress on many issues, e.g., guns to Mexico and the IRS scandal, and this President has ignored the law and by-passed Congress on such matters as executive amnesty and the Bergdahl prisoner exchange, and now wants to do so on his Iran deal. The alleged economic benefits of TPP – and they are minimal, such as increasing U.S. GDP by 0.4 percent by 2025 – do not trump the Constitution, the law, and the proper use of fast track.
Further, can a president not known for standing up unapologetically for America be trusted to secure an equitable deal with a trading powerhouse like Japan, whose officials know that he wants a deal no matter what? That’s an especially valid question given that the Japanese have failed to open their domestic markets in any meaningful way to American goods, especially autos and agricultural products, through the entire post-WWII period.
Further, the Obama administration has relied only on its own counsel and the self-interested advice of some 600 non-governmental organizations, including many multinational corporations. These corporate advisors represent neither the American people nor our national interest. They serve merely their officers and directors in the push for profit and organization clout.
The president has not only trampled on the trade-off that lies at the heart of fast-track authority but is also bargaining from a position of weakness when it comes to what should be the primary objective of trade policy: preserving American jobs and American incomes.
By rewarding another instance of massive executive overreach and giving free rein to the president’s questionable negotiating, a Republican Congress would saddle America with a government-managed, crony-capitalist trade agreement that would be equally as difficult to undo as Obamacare.
Kevin L. Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council, which has represented the interests of domestic manufacturing since 1933.