Fast-Track: Less Than Meets the Eye

If you want a good description of the relatively small stakes involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, you should read Paul Krugman’s column in late February in which he concluded–though not with any great sense of urgency–that loss of the agreement would be “no big deal.”

There’s a lot of hype about T.P.P., from both supporters and opponents. Supporters like to talk about the fact that the countries at the negotiating table comprise around 40 percent of the world economy, which they imply means that the agreement would be hugely significant. But trade among these players is already fairly free, so the T.P.P. wouldn’t make that much difference.

Meanwhile, opponents portray the T.P.P. as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown. Corporate interests would get somewhat more ability to seek legal recourse against government actions, but, no, the Obama administration isn’t secretly bargaining away democracy.

I mention this because a whole constellation of forces are turning an upcoming vote on the T.P.P–actually, not on the T.P.P, but on the “fast-track” legislation limiting post-agreement amendment that accompanies virtually every major trade agreement–into more of a “big deal” than it merits. Partly that’s because Very Serious People view this as an opportunity for the elusive Bipartisan Legislation, though if it succeeds it will more likely be with the president benefiting from a lop-sided Republican vote. Partly it’s because the MSM are viewing this as a Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which is, of course, in “disarray” over trade policy. And yes, partly it’s because Democratic progressives have decided that defeating “fast-track” is the best way to defeat the agreement, and painting fast-track as a sort of executive/corporate power grab makes it a useful ideological litmus test for Democrats–including the Democrat who announced a presidential campaign recently–and possible eye-candy for Tea Party types who can be convinced to buy the “executive tyranny” interpretation (as Greg Sargent points out today).

If you want to understand fast-track (or as it is more formally known, Trade Promotion Authority) separately from all the symbolic freight it has taken on (not just this time around, but in the past), read Danny Vinik’s untangling of the dispute at TNR:

TPA does two main things. First, it sets the negotiating objectives for the White House. In the version of TPA that Hatch, Wyden, and Ryan agreed on, those objectives require that the White House secure enforceable standards for labor, environment, and human rights, while demanding increased transparency, for instance. Through TPA, then, Congress is supposed to have a say in the actual negotiations. Equally important from the Democratic perspective, this TPA bill would last for at least three years, with a potential for a four-year extension. That means a hypothetical President Scott Walker would need to gain enforceable labor, environmental, and human rights standards in any trade deal his administration negotiates.

In return for setting those negotiating objectives, legislators agree to move the bill quickly through Congress. That means limited debate, no amendments, and just an up-or-down vote for passage. This bolsters the credibility of the president, allowing him (or her) to negotiate with other countries with the knowledge that Congress won’t adjust the deal after it’s completed. Either the legislative branch approves of what the president has negotiated and passes the deal, or it doesn’t and the deal dies.

As Vinik points out, one very legitimate complaint about this particular fast-track bill is that is has been offered very late in the game, when negotiations are nearly finished. Another legitimate complaint is that the conditions Wyden secured to placate progressive opponents just are not strong enough. But the opposition to fast-track has mostly been cast as an unconditional opposition to the very idea:

Many policymakers don’t just object to the timing of TPA, though. They object to the legislation altogether. “Do I look like a rubber stamp?” Representative Donna Edwards said at the rally Wednesday. “Fast track is a relinquishment of our constitutional responsibility,” Representative Alan Grayson told me after the rally. “We don’t do this for tax bills. We don’t do this for defense bills. We don’t do this for health care bills. We didn’t do this for agriculture bills. Why should we do it for trade bills?” There is, though, a key difference between trade bills and tax or health care bills: Trade bills are negotiations with many countries. Health care and tax bills are just domestic issues.

“Making law, deliberately in our Constitution, is one of the hardest things known to mankind,” Grayson added. “You have to have the House pass a bill and the Senate pass exactly the same bill, word for word, even down to the punctuation.” That’s true. But trade bills would become much harder to pass if foreign countries had to not just negotiate with the president but also all 535 members of Congress. Many of the partners to the TPP have been pressuring the U.S. to pass TPA.

The “rubber stamp” argument against fast-track bills has been around ever since I can remember; it does sort of ignore the fact that the “rubber stamp” Members of Congress are free to vote down trade agreements, as they are very obviously willing to do in this case. I haven’t heard anyone yet say they will vote for TPA but against the actual agreement (unless it is subsequently modified). But the fact that isn’t apparently seen as an option shows how the politics of trade policy have become Kabuki’d to an uncomfortable extent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.