Next steps on trade
Following a win in Congress, Mr. Obama must strike a fair bargain with Asian partners.
AFTER MONTHS of bruising political struggle, Congress has passed the trade promotion authority bill that President Obama requested. Mr. Obama’s signature on it will empower his negotiators to cut the most advantageous trade agreements possible with 11 other countries in the Pacific Rim because all parties now know that the final deal cannot be undone by amendments or a filibuster in Congress.
That fact alone is worth celebrating, but Mr. Obama can take pride in the all-out effort he waged on behalf of the bill, as well as his effective partnership with Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and a small but committed minority of Democrats on the Hill. Those who would fault Mr. Obama for lacking persistence or the ability to work with Congress must acknowledge that their criticisms do not apply in this case. Ditto for those who consider Washington irretrievably dysfunctional.
In pushing for the bill, Mr. Obama absorbed a political beating from the core constituencies of his Democratic Party, which accused him, unjustifiably, of selling out American workers in the interest of multinational corporate profits. His willingness to stand up to this criticism fortifies hopes that the Great Recession of 2008 will not lead to a global wave of protectionism, like the one that accompanied, and exacerbated, the Great Depression. Mr. Obama’s performance also sets an example for leaders of the other countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, especially Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who has already taken political risks just to join the TPP talks and will have to take more to finalize a deal.
Pressing Japan to open its chronically closed markets is just one of the key United States TPP goals that the passage of trade promotion authority will facilitate. Others include ensuring that the pact’s proposed investor dispute settlement system adequately protects U.S. regulations from unjustifiable litigation, that the intellectual property rights of American drug makers are protected with due consideration for the health needs of the poorer TPP countries and that the pact truly promotes more openness in Vietnam, both political and commercial. If those considerations can be dealt with, then the United States should reap benefits both economic and strategic; the TPP promises to knit the United States and East Asia closer together, on pro-American terms.
The fact that the opponents of trade promotion authority wildly exaggerated their concerns does not mean that they had no legitimate qualms; any time Congress turns over this much authority to the executive branch, there’s a risk the president will use it unwisely, or contrary to the lawmakers’ wishes. If Mr. Obama’s team does indeed fail at the bargaining table, despite its new powers, then Congress will have an opportunity to vote the deal down. We hope and expect, however, that the administration will succeed.