Trade Promotion Authority’s Benefits Depend on the Details

Bryan Riley /

Legislation to give President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was just introduced. TPA gives the President the authority to negotiate trade agreements, which are then presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

When asked whether Congress should enact TPA legislation, Senator Ron Wyden (D–OR), who is likely to assume chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, reportedly replied: “It depends on the details.”

That’s the right answer.

One option is a TPA bill that clearly empowers the President to negotiate agreements that reduce barriers to international trade and investment while strengthening property rights.

Another option is a TPA bill that gives these goals low priority while empowering the President to increase trade barriers in order to influence labor, environmental, and currency policies in other countries.

Until those details are examined, it is impossible to make a recommendation about TPA. In the meantime, it is not unreasonable for supporters of free trade to be skeptical about a request for TPA from a President who believes that the North American Free Trade Agreement “was a mistake”; who delayed trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea; and whose Administration has imposed new trade barriers on products ranging from tires to tomatoes.

However, many attacks on TPA appear to be nothing more than attacks on trade itself, coming from protectionists who want to deprive U.S. families and businesses of the freedom to buy products that are produced in other countries.

The reliably pro-trade Wall Street Journal recently suggested one approach to TPA:

Rather than deny fast-track, Republicans can write the Trade Promotion Authority legislation to stipulate that any trade pact must include labor and environmental negotiations that are no more expansive than those contained in the free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, Peru and South Korea. Any trade deal that met those terms would get the fast-track treatment. Any pact that exceeded such rules would be subject to amendments and the normal rules of Congressional debate and approval.

Another concern is that TPA will be used as an ill-advised bargaining chip to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program scheduled to expire at the end of 2014.

The goal of TPA should be to boost economic freedom. Members of Congress will need to carefully examine the details of new TPA legislation to see if it meets this standard.