No one is surprised that 151 liberal Democrats in the House don’t support granting the president fast track authority to negotiate trade agreements. But two groups of Republicans have now signed letters to the President this week joining those Democrats in their opposition. The news media have reported the story as evidence that the tea party opposes President Obama’s trade agenda.
The signatories of the letters are an odd combination of young, party-line Republicans and old-guard isolationists who oppose free trade. Neither group has anything to do with the tea party and both seem confused about how fast track works.
One of the assertions made in the letters is that establishing fast track authority cedes to the President Congress’s constitutional power to regulate trade. This is just wrong. Fast track is not a grant of authority to the President but rather an exercise of authority by Congress.
No one doubts that Congress can pass statutes that regulate trade. Also clear is that the President can enter into treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Fast track combines those processes by having the President negotiate the terms of an agreement, after which both houses of Congress pass (or not) a statute that ratifies and implements that agreement.
The contentious aspect of fast track authority comes from the fact that Congress agrees to hold an up-or-down vote on any agreement submitted by the president with no opportunity to add amendments. The good sense of this arrangement is obvious when you consider that a trade agreement is the product of complex and lengthy international negotiations that cannot be adjusted at the last minute just to accommodate each congressman’s pet issue.
But when establishing fast track authority, Congress also imposes restrictions on what must be included (or excluded) from any trade agreement placed on the fast track. In essence, Congress agrees to adopt practical, streamlined parliamentary procedures as long as the President negotiates agreements it likes. Fast track allows Congress to exert influence at an earlier, less-disruptive stage in the process.
While the legitimacy of fast track might be an interesting topic for constitutional scholars, the controversy is mostly a proxy for larger policy arguments about the value of trade in general. Protectionists disapprove of fast track and trade agreements because they want more barriers to trade, regardless of its constitutional status. Similarly, proponents of increased trade approve of fast track because trade agreements put a check on Congress’s tendency to protect domestic industries.
So why have 27 Republicans come out against fast track? Cato’s online trade votes database can help us answer the question.