As U.S. negotiators try to wrap up a major trade deal with 11 other countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, they find themselves in a Catch-22: Their trading partners say they won't conclude a deal unless Congress agrees to approve or reject it promptly without amendments, but many lawmakers want to see the final version before agreeing to put it on such a fast track.
Late last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sought to free the administration from that trap, proposing to renew the fast-track authority that expired in 2007. Their bill includes an extensive and ambitious list of negotiating objectives for trade deals, calling for enforceable rules on, for example, labor and environmental standards, state-owned enterprises and currency manipulation. It also would require greater consultations with Congress and more transparency with the public, albeit without requiring the parties to reveal the specific proposals they exchange in secret. And it would give each chamber a new way to deny fast-track consideration to any deal that didn't meet the negotiation objectives or transparency requirements.
Those are all important steps, and long overdue — which is the problem. By waiting until the Trans-Pacific Partnership was close to being signed before it set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements, Congress has little opportunity to put its stamp on the first trade treaty coming down the pike. That's why some critics say lawmakers would be abdicating their responsibility if they agreed to consider the Pacific deal without amendments.
Still, it's clear from past trade pacts that the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks will never reach fruition unless Congress agrees not to rewrite the deal that's negotiated. The fast-track bill won't force Congress to approve whatever the negotiators hand them — lawmakers can still vote it down — but not having fast-track will pretty much guarantee that there will be nothing to vote on. And that would be a terrible mistake, because it would deny the United States the chance to bring more trading partners up to first-world standards for labor, environmental protection, intellectual property, Internet openness and other important elements of the 21st century economy.
Globalization is happening with or without trade agreements. The goal of lawmakers and the administration alike should be to protect U.S. workers, consumers, entrepreneurs and investors by getting more of the planet to play by rules that look like ours, with real enforcement mechanisms. The fast-track bill proposed last week lays the groundwork not for waving such deals through Congress heedlessly but for negotiating and evaluating them. Congress should pass it, then wait to see whether the administration offers a version of the Pacific pact worth expediting.