ON THE returning Congress’s crowded agenda, no item is more important than the passage of a bill known as trade promotion authority. It would enable President Obama to submit a 12-nation trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations to lawmakers on a fast-track basis — i.e., with no amendments permitted — as has been done with previous major trade deals. With a presidential election year almost underway, time is running out. The House and Senate need to get the bill passed and on the president’s desk promptly, clearing the way for final negotiation of the nearly-complete trade deal, and its consideration by Congress, before Mr. Obama’s term expires.
Delay, of course, suited the opponents of trade promotion authority because they don’t want the United States to negotiate lower trade barriers with Japan, Australia, Canada and the other potential members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. To critics on the right, trade promotion authority is yet another executive power grap by this president, one that would undermine U.S. sovereignty, to boot. To the measure’s far more numerous critics on the left, the TPP is yet another corporation-friendly bargain that will destroy American jobs, as the North American Free Trade Agreement, also passed pursuant to fast-track authority, allegedly did.
These are old anti-trade arguments that aren’t convincing even before you account for the fact that the TPP is about geopolitics as well as economics. The key here is Japan. Aging and economically troubled, the Asian giant is looking to forge a deeper political and security commitment with the United States to offset a rising China. Tokyo is so eager for a closer relationship with Washington that it’s willing, in return, to reform its protectionist economy under the aegis of the TPP. To this boon to the U.S. and world economies, add the fact that the TPP would ensure that the Pacific Rim plays by U.S.-style rules and regulations, rather than by China’s neo-mercantilist ones, and you have a compelling case for swift approval. If the TPP fails, there won’t be much left of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.
We have previously faulted Mr. Obama for being slow to embrace the TPP in the face of Democratic opposition. Since his reelection, however, the president has thrown the weight of his office behind the pact and its necessary prerequisite, trade promotion authority. That was what the Republicans who control both houses of Congress, most of whom favor the TPP, said they wanted the president to do. So they have every reason to follow through, urgently, on this rare area of agreement with the White House.
Japan’s pro-TPP prime minister, Shinzo Abe, arrives in Washington for a state visit on April 28. If Congress needs a target date for motivation, we can’t think of a better one.