The Bush administration recently began a serious effort to obtain from Congress "trade promotion authority"--known in the past as "fast-track authority"--which would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements and then ask for straight up-or-down votes in Congress to implement them, with no amendments allowed.
All presidents since Richard M. Nixon sought such power under the rubric fast-track authority, and all but President Clinton received it.
It is not at all clear that President Bush will be given the same power, but he should be.
Trade promotion authority will provide an essential impetus to global trade talks because other countries will not seriously negotiate if they lack reasonable assurance that the U.S. will, in the end, approve agreements that have been reached.
Many in Congress oppose trade promotion authority because it does not require labor and environmental regulations to be included in trade pacts.
Labor unions and environmental organizations believe such standards are the price that should be exacted for selling foreign goods in the U.S.
Yet the justification for applying fast-track to tariff reductions does not apply to labor and environmental regulations. In general, we profit from the cumbersome rules imposed on the legislative process, including amendments and filibusters, because they protect liberty--i.e., the absence of regulation--and restrain special interests from getting benefits for themselves at the expense of the public.
International trade agreements lowering tariffs, however, do not need such high hurdles. Lower tariffs overseas actually increase liberty by freeing U.S. producers from restrictions that reduce their exports. And reducing tariffs at home leaves our consumers free to choose better goods at lower prices.
Tariff reductions also represent the triumph of the public interest over powerful protectionist interest groups.
Environmental and labor regulations, in contrast, potentially interfere with liberty by blocking trade. They also can serve the agenda of special-interest groups, such as companies and unions that lose from international competition. Therefore environmental and labor regulations should be subject to the same obstacles as ordinary legislation. Indeed, we particularly need an extended debate before internationalizing environmental standards.
Developing nations argue that they cannot afford our labor and environmental standards and that they can't afford to defend their interests before international regulatory bodies. Such standards risk curbing exports from the poorest of the poor.
Expanding free trade can continue to create wealth among nations, increasing the living standards of our citizens at home even as it helps feed and clothe the truly impoverished in the developing world.
We thus cannot afford to await the results of a larger debate about environmental and labor standards before starting the next round of world trade negotiations.