A new path on trade deals

A container vessel is off-loaded at the Port of Los Angeles in 2012. The ports of L.A. and Long Beach make Southern California a major global player in international trade.
(Los Angeles Times)

Paralyzed by ideological divisions, Congress has done little to promote economic growth or reduce unemployment since Republicans took over the House in 2011. One exception has been the approval of free-trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that lower barriers in those countries to U.S. exports and services. Any further trade deals face a huge hurdle, however: The law setting the ground rules for negotiating and approving such agreements expired in 2007. A bipartisan proposal to update the law is pending in both chambers, and lawmakers should make it a top priority to put a version on President Obama’s desk.

For much of the 20th century, Congress gave the president the green light to strike trade deals that reduced tariffs. In 1974, however, lawmakers passed the first in a series of temporary “fast track” laws requiring congressional approval of any trade treaty. This “trade promotion authority” legislation also required lawmakers to approve or reject such treaties without amendment. The division of labor has been clear ever since: The administration does the bargaining, but Congress ultimately gives the deal an up-or-down vote.

Now, a leading Senate Democrat and an influential Republican in each chamber have introduced bills to give Obama a new version of the trade promotion authority that expired in 2007. They’ve run into heavy flak, with critics arguing that requiring Congress to vote on a proposed treaty without changes would only make it easier for the White House to ram through bad trade deals. But killing “fast track” is akin to killing future treaties, which would be self-defeating. These bills give Congress the chance to set prerequisites and goals for trade deals — for example, by instructing the president to negotiate for particular ways to resolve trade disputes. They also dictate how transparent the negotiating process must be, who must be included in the consultations, and who will have access to the text of the proposed treaty.

With no current instructions from Congress, the Obama administration has been negotiating trade deals under the rules Congress set more than a decade ago. These include ambitious, broad and controversial treaties with major partners across the Pacific and the Atlantic. Because these negotiations take up new and complex issues, even critics of the deals ought to be pushing Congress to update the president’s trade promotion authority, providing more transparency and more specific instructions on emerging issues such as state-sponsored businesses and intellectual property. The current proposals need work, but they’re heading in the right direction. If Congress wants these treaties to be more to its liking, lawmakers need to stop dithering and give the president a new set of marching orders on trade.