The Republicans are right that the administration should not have started negotiating the TPP agreement before securing trade promotion authority. That authority, also known as fast track, allows the president to submit trade agreements to Congress for a timely up‐or‐down vote without amendments. In exchange, Congress imposes a series of negotiating objectives that any fast‐tracked agreement must meet.
Congress sets the blueprint for U.S. trade policy, and then promises to get out of the way. It’s been an effective model for executive‐legislative cooperation on trade policy for decades.
This administration, however, has done it all backwards. They spent years negotiating the TPP, a 12‐member mega‐regional trade agreement, before even requesting fast track authority from Congress. Now members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are distrustful of the administration’s trade agenda and feel left out of the TPP negotiations.
But when a patient is dying on the operating table because one doctor made a mistake, the second doctor doesn’t threaten to shoot the patient in the head to make a point. There are ways for the Republicans to help the U.S. trade agenda despite the administration’s bungling.
One thing trade supporters in Congress can do is stop obsessing over trade promotion authority. Yes, the president should have requested fast track years ago. Yes, the president should be more actively whipping Democrats to support it now. But he didn’t, and he’s not. The chances of securing trade promotion authority now are slim. At this point, arguing over fast track is a waste of time and energy.
But don’t we need fast track in order to get the best deal from our trading partners in the TPP? Not necessarily. It’s true that trade promotion authority enables foreign negotiators to put more on the table without the fear that Congress will disrupt the bargain with last minute demands. But there’s also a downside.
At this late stage in the negotiations, the imposition of new, mandatory negotiating objectives could be very disruptive. What’s more, any trade promotion authority bill that could be passed by this Congress is going to include a handful of especially bad negotiating objectives.