By agreeing to put new trade agreements on a fast track, Congress accomplished something far greater than critics of the legislation acknowledge. Since the last fast-track law expired in 2007, the Obama administration hasn’t been able to close any major deals. Now the United States will be able to take the lead again on global trade policy, advancing distinctively American notions about how to give businesses a more level playing field on which to compete, consumers more choices of goods and services, and U.S. workers more protection at a time of rampant globalization.
But the six-year fast-track bill also does less than its critics claim: It does not “grease the skids” for major but controversial trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Those agreements will still be subject to congressional scrutiny, and may be denied fast-track treatment in either or both chambers if they don’t meet the negotiating objectives Congress set. And even those that are given fast-track treatment, which prevents Congress from offering amendments, still have to pass an up-or-down vote.
In lobbying Congress for fast track, President Obama made a persuasive case for the need to reassert U.S. leadership on trade, particularly in Asia, where China has been lining up its own trading networks. Now that pro-trade Republicans and centrist Democrats have prevailed over union-backed liberals and tea party conservatives, it’s up to Obama to deliver a Trans-Pacific Partnership that leads the region in a direction that serves all of our interests.
In particular, he needs to produce a deal with labor and environmental standards that not only mirror our own but are enforceable in meaningful ways. That was one of the shortcomings of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but the Pacific deal — in which Mexico and Canada are among the 12 nations participating — offers a chance to fix that mistake. The agreement must also preserve our ability to impose tougher standards in the United States for consumer safety, environmental protection and financial security, without stopping Congress from easing rules that have become outdated.
These are important principles. The specifics of any agreement, though, will necessarily involve compromises, and lawmakers should be open to those as well. The point isn’t to promote more trade for its own sake. That growth is happening anyway; the globalization train left the station years ago and it’s not coming back. The point is to push our trading partners to embrace the kinds of standards for manufacturing and commerce that the United States has adopted, while including the mechanisms needed to enforce them. President Obama, you’ve got the authority you sought; the ball is now in your court.