The writer is president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and served as a U.S. Trade Representative trade adviser for three administrations for 14 years starting in 1994.
The House and Senate have sent Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) proposals out of their respective committees to the floor for consideration, so the issue is now before us.
TPA, also known as Fast Track Authority, provides the administration with trade-negotiating direction and authority while also forcing Congress to vote up or down on trade proposals without amendment and within a limited amount of time for consideration.
My organization believes in the value and necessity of good process, especially for congressional oversight and regulation of trade, as our Constitution provides. TPA is a shortcut of Congress’ normal process that reduces their ability to do the job we elected them to do.
TPA makes the known problems associated with trade negotiations worse. It limits congressional oversight and review while empowering the administration in power to potentially cause more mischief behind closed doors with the implanting of “sweetheart” provisions for special interests. TPA then ties the hands of Congress to take the pork provisions out because of the “take it or leave it without amendment” structure.
Is such a scenario possible? As a former United States Trade Representative (USTR) adviser for three administrations for 14 years, I feel the implanting of “sweetheart” provisions is not only possible but probable.
First, the USTR advisory system is dominated by U.S.-based companies that have massive worldwide economic interests and footprints. These international players are oftentimes both the largest exporters and importers of products and services into our country. These heavy hitters have the ear of our trade negotiators.
When these players weigh in with advice and guidance, it is fair for the public to wonder whether they are wearing their “company” hats or their “country” hats. Whether or not these heavy hitters guide our nation’s trade negotiating hand is not in question.
Second, USTR staff tends to be young, bright and ambitious. They also tend to move from employment at USTR to the private sector — to companies they worked with closely in trade negotiations — after the trade deal is completed. There is a clear self-interest for them to cash in their public trade expertise for a higher-paying job with a large company with international trade interests.
TPA also makes the well-known trade-negotiating problems of secrecy and lack of consultation with Congress worse because it reduces the need for any administration to consult with Congress as the process moves forward. Instead of consulting with Congress as they proceed, which actually strengthens the negotiating position overall by securing congressional buy-in, TPA results in negotiations behind closed doors and then springs the final work product on Congress at the end of the process.
Why should any administration take Congress seriously when Congress fails to take its own constitutionally defined role seriously? As all parents know, there is no substitute for active involvement.
These days, trade agreements do more than target tariffs for reductions. They set economic, environmental, labor and agricultural policy, and they establish legal standing and dispute resolution processes that undermine state and national authorities to set domestic standards.
If you suspect that trade agreements have the far-reaching ability to give away our nation’s sovereignty, you are right.
The last reason Congress should not support Trade Promotional Authority is that our national trade policy is a colossal failure and needs more, not less, congressional oversight.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Trade Division, over the past 21 years, the U.S. has amassed a cumulative balance of trade deficit of $9 trillion, averaging deficits of $428.7 billion per year. And it is getting worse. The past 11 years have averaged a $585 billion-per-year deficit.
Last year’s trade deficit of $504 billion represented a 3 percent drag on the growth rate of our national economy. Trade deficits export jobs, manufacturing capacity and tax revenues.
Trade policy can produce either good or bad results. Just to be clear, a $9 trillion cumulative trade deficit over 21 years is a self-inflicted punch in the gut. TPA is a process shortcut that would make a bad situation worse.
Like most Americans, I am not against trade, but I am against 21 years of losing trade policy.
Step up, Congress. Do your job.