Complex trade agreements are easily demonized, so it’s not surprising that Congress hasn’t been rushing to help President Obama create the largest free-trade zone in the world. But it’s time for action.
Earlier this month, after five years of talks, negotiators from 12 countries finished drafting the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty – at least as much as they could finish without the final policy decisions their political leaders must make. The big hoop to jump through now is congressional approval of fast-track negotiating authority for President Obama.
Fast-track authority requires Congress to either approve or reject an entire trade pact without amendment. With it, a president can assure other nations that they can commit themselves to an intricate multilateral deal without seeing it nibbled to death by 535 politicians on Capitol Hill. Congress has granted this power to all presidents since Richard Nixon, with the exception of Bill Clinton and now Obama.
At the moment, fast track is all about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the TPP is all about fast track. To kill the trade deal, you block fast track.
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We’ve seen only fragments of the pact so far; its opponents complain about the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. While there are legitimate concerns about any treaty this sweeping, this isn’t one of them. Nobody does high-stakes bargaining on a public stage, including the unions fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But what we do know about the TPP is promising, especially for the state of Washington.
Trade liberalization – which lowers barriers to goods, services and investments – tends to create wealth by expanding markets. It can also lure employers to move factories to countries where wages, worker protections and environmental standards are abysmal.
That’s a reason to scrutinize the deal, not to deny it a hearing. The Partnership has been negotiated on Obama’s watch, and he has been emphatic about building labor and environmental safeguards into it. Working conditions would reflect the standards of the International Labor Organization.
Some of the countries in the agreement – Canada, Australia, Mexico, Singapore, Chile and Peru – already have trade pacts with the United States, so the Partnership wouldn’t transform the status quo between them and America. Three of the others – Japan, New Zealand and Brunei – aren’t places you go shopping for cheap labor.
That leaves Malaysia and Vietnam. Malaysia is middle-income, and its wages are rising. Vietnam is dirt poor. We’ll have to see how the pact would prevent abuses there; don’t assume Obama has ignored the question.
The 800-pound gorilla missing from the list is China. That’s by design. One of the purposes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is to tighten Western ties with countries – like Singapore and Japan – that fear domination by the increasingly aggressive Chinese.
Another purpose is to preempt a Chinese attempt to build its own Pacific trade zone on its own terms. A Chinese version of the Partnership, for example, wouldn’t likely contain the copyright and patent guarantees the Obama administration has secured to protect U.S. inventors, tech firms, researchers, filmmakers, artists and entertainment companies.
As a major exporter of aircraft, apples, software and other products in high demand, Washington would likely benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership more than any other state. The country as a whole would almost certainly benefit from the synergy a free trade zone of this scale would create. Congress should give Obama fast track authority, let him bring home a treaty, then give it a close look.