Economy & Business

Why on Earth Would Conservatives Oppose the Fast-Track Trade Bill?

The legislation would give Congress real leverage over the Executive.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the “fast track” bill that will give support to President Barack Obama’s power to negotiate trade deals. Passage of the law would allow the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the most ambitious free-trade areas that would cover most of our Asian trading partners (except China) and rival the European Union in size.

Not surprisingly, trade unions are rushing to the ramparts against the legislation, as are Democratic leaders like senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren. They would like to repeal the laws of economics and deny the benefits of free trade. That’s no surprise. But what makes little sense are the media reports that some tea-party and conservative groups may convince a significant number of House Republicans to vote against the deal.

EDITORIAL: The Trans-Pacific Partnership Deserves a Hearing

It would be hypocritical for these groups to oppose fast track because of opposition to free trade. Most of the tea-party groups rose up because of their opposition to the government bailouts and stimulus spending in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and then to Obamacare. They opposed government intervention in the free market and wasteful taxes and spending, and they defended the freedom of the individual to make their own choices as to their health care and other fundamental decisions. Free-trade deals have exactly the same effect: They repeal the government barriers, both here and abroad, that interfere with free markets. They may not be perfect —  no agreement has ever reduced all barriers to trade — but these deals will benefit the American economy as a whole, even if some industries stand to win and others to lose (as they do in competitive markets anyway).

Other conservative groups may oppose the fast-track deal because of their appropriate opposition to President Obama’s unjustified expansions of executive power. I am one of the more vigorous defenders of presidential power, under both the Clinton and the Bush administrations, but even President Obama’s claims go too far for me. His refusal to enforce laws in immigration, health care, education, and welfare, among others, has violated his constitutional responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Obama administration’s recent loss in court on its deferred-action immigration program may be the first signs of broader resistance by the other branches of government to its usurpation of power.

#related#But critics are missing the mark by confusing fast track with Obama’s executive power grabs. Fast track does not delegate any power to the executive branch. Under fast track, the president does not exercise any new authority that he lacked before. Under normal constitutional practice, the president negotiates an international agreement and then submits it to Congress for approval. Fast-track doesn’t change that fundamental order. President Obama can negotiate any agreement he likes, and Congress is free to vote it up or down.

Instead, fast track lives up to its name: It gives expedited congressional consideration to any trade agreement. It promises that any trade agreement will be considered within a short period of time and without amendments — promises necessary in order for our trade partners to take negotiations seriously. Fast track only changes the internal procedures of Congress, which are only within Congress’s power to change, on the timing and speed of the vote on the agreement. In fact, there are some innovations in the bill that might allow even a negative vote in the House and Senate committees to effectively derail a bill. If the executive branch does not closely consult and engage Congress, the bill could also lose the promise of an expedited vote. In that event, any Obama trade pact would undergo the rules that apply to any ordinary bill, which could never come up for a vote or be so encumbered with amendments that our foreign partners will pull out.

Senator Orrin Hatch, who co-wrote the fast-track proposal, could not have demonstrated his skill at containing the executive branch to better effect. Compare the fast-track bill to the Corker legislation on the Iran nuclear agreement. Under the fast-track bill, Obama can make a trade pact but — without Congress — the United States will not change any of its laws to bring us into compliance. That will kill any deal. Obama’s veto is meaningless, because without congressional action, he is left with nothing. Under the Iran legislation, Congress has reversed the Constitution’s polarity. It treats Obama’s agreement as a done deal unless Congress votes to reject it, and even allows President Obama to veto the rejection. It effectively requires Congress to vote by two-thirds to stop an Iranian agreement, and if it fails to, most courts will conclude that President Obama acted with Congress’s implicit consent.

Although Congress starts out with a stronger hand in trade deals than in arms control, Republican leaders could bring the same tools to bear on Iran that they are on trade. They could declare that without Congress’s affirmative approval, the United States will not consider any bargain with Iran to be binding under U.S. or international law. Congress could refuse to change any domestic statutes, particularly those sanctioning Iran, unless it gets that vote. Republicans could learn a thing or two from their successful tactics on trade and apply them to the looming threat of Iran.

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