A GOP Deal to Give Obama More Trade Power

Legislation unveiled Thursday would allow the administration to negotiate agreements that Congress couldn't pick apart.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Don't look now, but congressional Republicans are once again on the verge of handing over more power to President Obama.

The announcement Thursday that House and Senate negotiators had struck a deal on "fast track" trade authority is important for several reasons. Chiefly, it could lead to the ratification of the biggest international trade agreement since NAFTA, along with the most significant legislative achievement that the GOP Congress delivers to Obama. But it also marks the latest example of Republicans paradoxically insisting that a president who they have decried as imperial have yet more latitude to bargain with foreign leaders.

The bipartisan legislation unveiled by the tax-writing committees would allow the Obama administration to complete trade agreements in Asia and Europe with the assurance they won't be picked apart on Capitol Hill, a power known as  "trade promotion authority." The bill sets parameters for labor, environmental, and human rights standards while allowing the administration to submit the agreements for an up-or-down vote in Congress without the possibility of amendments. As an additional backstop, the proposal also allows the Senate, with a 60-vote majority, to rescind the fast-track authority if the agreement falls short of the requirements.

The administration is negotiating a major deal with Japan and other Pacific countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would remove tariffs on U.S.-made goods exported to several Asian countries. Talks with the European Union would lift trade barriers for goods shipped across the Atlantic.

Trade is a rare point of agreement between Obama and Republicans, who spent their first years in charge of the House urging the president to make a more aggressive push for promotion authority, which had expired in 2007. Obama's problem has always been with Democrats, and they are promising a fierce fight that keeps final passage of the fast-track bill in doubt. Progressive leaders like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with labor unions and activist groups, argue that the deal does little to heed the lessons of NAFTA, which they blame for the loss of millions of domestic jobs to factories overseas. The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, has signed on to the legislation, but it faces opposition from Charles Schumer of New York, the designated successor to Minority Leader Harry Reid. Schumer said this week that he had "changed" on the issue. And don't discount the 2016 implications: Liberals plan to push Hillary Clinton to come out against the deal, which would mark her first major policy break with her former boss since leaving the State Department.

In a statement on Thursday, Obama hailed the agreement while acknowledging the concerns of Democrats:

My top priority in any trade negotiation is expanding opportunity for hardworking Americans.  It’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise, and that’s why I will only sign my name to an agreement that helps ordinary Americans get ahead.  At the same time, at a moment when 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we must make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.

The bill put forward today would help us write those rules in a way that avoids the mistakes from our past, seizes opportunities for our future, and stays true to our values.  It would level the playing field, give our workers a fair shot, and for the first time, include strong fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment, and a free and open internet.

Republicans argued that the deal preserved Congress's authority to set the objectives for the trade agreements at the front end of the process, even as it relinquished the ability to change it later. But they also acknowledged that without giving Obama a freer hand to negotiate, those pacts would never get signed. The GOP-led House may be suing the president to rein in his power to implement domestic policy, and the Senate just this week forced Obama to let Congress in on its Iran deal. But Republican leaders won't pass the president's authorization for military force against ISIS because, they argue, it doesn't give him enough power to wage war. Despite their rhetorical attacks on his imperial presidency, Republicans sometimes see enlarging Obama's authority as the best path to enacting their desired policies.