US Trade Representative Ron Kirk had something interesting to say Wednesday when he presented remarks to the US Chamber of Commerce on the "next steps" for US trade policy.
In the speech, the USTR almost oft-handedly commented that his office is in the process of getting special Presidential Trade Promotion authority so it can bring back to Congress a TransPacific Partnership nine-way free trade agreement – with as little Congressional hassle as possible. He said, "obviously, we’re going to have to have it," adding that he wants TPA renewed as expeditiously as possible.
Well, that is a major shift in US trade policy – when compared to the two years expended so Mr. Kirk could travel around the country to discover how the American public – ordinary citizens, businesses and labor – felt about trade. Mr. Kirk says he used that time-consuming process to improve on the then-pending three free trade agreements negotiated with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, initially negotiated and signed by the previous Bush Administration.
As predicted by Mr. Kirk, Congress approved all three revamped FTAs by overwhelming margins in both the House and Senate. The fact is those FTAs would have been approved by the same margins if they were submitted earlier in the progress. In the interim 24 months, the Administration essentially "spun its wheels" on trade, getting nowhere on building a future US trade agenda.
Why the sudden change in policy? In fact, Mr. Kirk has things backwards. Aside from the "fast track" procedure – which puts time restraints on Congressional consideration of trade agreements and an rule against any amendments – TPA was really designed to include Congress much more in the beginning, middle and end of reaching trade agreements than it had been in the past. Theoretically, the White House and Congress are supposed to sit down and outline some general principles that are meant to guide the process of those negotiations.
The US Constitution puts war-making powers, foreign policy and interstate and foreign trade squarely within the purview of Congress. In all three, Congress has wisely chosen to delegate that authority to the Executive Branch, but not without strings attached.
TPA should have been negotiated well before the United States embarked on the TPP exercise more than two years ago, instead of waiting until the talks enter their final phase in 2012. As a result USTR might be in for a big surprise when it does enter those talks with Congress.
Mr. Kirk should be careful in his use of words. He must not confuse "expeditious" – which means "quick and efficient" – with "expedient" – which means "advisable, or on practical rather than moral grounds."
Having a review of Trade Promotion Authority in open committee hearings would be nice.