In the News
The Federalist, Scott Lincicome: Top Nine Myths About Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans Pacific Partnership
A misguided (or misleading) opposition really has no idea what it’s talking about.
The current debate over Trade Promotion Authority proves, once again, that the classic description of the anti-globalization movement—as “largely the well-intentioned but ill-informed being led around by the ill-intentioned and well informed”—still holds true. Despite the tireless efforts of trade policy experts to explain why TPA and the U.S. trade agreements it’s intended to facilitate are, while imperfect, not a secret corporatist plot to usurp the U.S. Constitution and install global government, myths and half-truths continue to infect traditional and social media outlets.
Because these myths—originating with the same old anti-trade bedfellows that have been with us for decades—have duped a lot of good folks who are otherwise predisposed to support liberty and free markets (including some in Congress), and because the House of Representatives is poised to vote on TPA in the coming days, here is one last debunking of the top nine myths about TPA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and U.S. free-trade agreements (FTAs) more broadly.
To save some time, you can skip to your favorite myth by clicking on the links below.
The TPA legislation… is clearly constitutional because Congress retains its authority to approve or reject all future trade agreements. It might be unconstitutional if Congress tried to delegate its authority to approve the final deal–but that is not at issue. Congress may always kill any future international agreement by withholding its final approval. The only difference under TPA is that Congress consents not to kill the agreement by amendment (i.e., the ‘death by a thousand cuts’). The Constitution grants each house of Congress the authority to establish its own rules of procedure, and it makes perfect sense for Congress to limit itself to straight up-or-down votes on certain resolutions, such as base closures and its own adjournment motions.
Constitutional law professor John O. McGinnis also recently reviewed TPA and concluded that TPA “simply permits Congress under its ordinary procedures to commit to a future majority vote of Congress to vote up or down on an agreement that the President has negotiated. Representative democracy is thus served by the later vote on an agreement whose text is known.” And then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1890 case of Field v. Clark approving the constitutionality of an analogous law—the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which granted the president even more authority than TPA. It was no big deal.
Finally, it’s important to reiterate that, contrary to some claims, FTAs are not treaties (which are typically “self-executing,” require two-thirds approval by the Senate, and have the force of law upon ratification). They are “congressional-executive agreements” that, even after being signed by the president, have absolutely no legal force until they are converted into implementing legislation (which would amend current law), passed by Congress, and signed into law by the president. Such agreements have for decades been used by the United States for many different issues, including trade liberalization, and U.S. courts have repeatedly rejected constitutional challenges thereto.
In short, a constitutional argument against TPA requires you to reject over a century of precedent, the repeated rulings of U.S. courts, and the opinions of even the strictest of constitutional scholars.
Totally false. As already noted above (and reiterated here by Cato’s Dan Ikenson and here by the Congressional Research Service), Congress under TPA retains total control over the international trade authority granted to it by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Any trade agreement negotiated by the president (which he has constitutional authority to do under Article II) still must be approved by Congress.
As noted by the CRS, “TPA reflects decades of debate, cooperation, and compromise between Congress and the executive branch in finding a pragmatic accommodation to the exercise of each branch’s respective authorities over trade policy.” It represents a “gentleman’s agreement” between the legislative branch and the executive branch—with the former promising the latter “fast track” rules for the requisite congressional approval of an FTA, if, and only if, the latter (i) agrees to follow a detailed set of congressional “negotiating objectives” for the agreement’s content; and (ii) engages in a series of consultations with Congress on that content. As discussed more fully below, each branch of government retains its constitutional authority to abandon this gentleman’s agreement, but doing so will essentially kill any hope of signing and implementing new FTAs. So, with limited exceptions, Congress and the executive toe the line.
Because neither branch gets expansive new powers or short-changed, Congress has granted every U.S. president since FDR some form of trade negotiating authority (source):
Pretty boring when you think about it, huh?
Mostly false. As already noted, TPA sets congressional negotiating objectives on a range of issues (some more palatable than others), but, contrary to the statements of TPA antagonists and even some supporters, these objectives are not legally binding on the executive branch. Instead, the president retains his authority to negotiate with foreign governments, and, as Meese notes, that’s a good thing: “under well-established constitutional rulings, it would raise serious constitutional concerns for Congress to try to mandate the President’s negotiating positions.”
The president and his U.S. trade representative thus technically have discretion to ignore these objectives, but doing so would obviously jeopardize any final congressional vote. As the CRS explains:
To take the fullest advantage of these benefits, Congress, drawing on its constitutional authority and historical precedent, defined the objectives that the President is to pursue in trade negotiations. Although the executive branch has some discretion over implementing these goals, they are definitive statements of U.S. trade policy that the Administration is expected to honor, if it expects trade agreement implementing legislation to be considered under expedited rules [i.e., ‘fast track’].
The negotiating objectives constitute one part of the gentleman’s agreement between Congress and the president: “follow our wishes when you negotiate, and we’ll limit our meddling when a final deal is struck.” If the president doesn’t follow them, then the deal is off.
Which brings us to…
Totally false. Not only does the latest version of TPA include new language expressly stating that the House or Senate can dismantle the “fast-track” rules for various “disapproval” reasons, but—even more importantly—Congress has always retained this power because it has plenary authority over its rules of procedure, including “fast track.”
The new TPA, like previous versions before it, acknowledges this fact in Sec. 106(c), which states that the fast-track rules are enacted as “as an exercise of the rulemaking power of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” but “with the full recognition of the constitutional right of either House to change the rules (so far as relating to the procedures of that House) at any time, in the same manner, and to the same extent as any other rule of that House.” The CRS summary of TPA reiterates this fact: “Congress reserves its constitutional right to withdraw or override the expedited procedures for trade implementing bills, which can take effect with a vote by either House of Congress.”
Such power is not merely theoretical. It is precisely what then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi did to the Colombia FTA in 2008 after President Bush submitted its implementing legislation. Her move effectively dismantled the “fast track” procedures and thus delayed congressional consideration of the agreement indefinitely.
In short, Congress retains total control over the FTA implementation process under TPA and can only be bound by the “fast track” rules if it wants to be bound.
Sensing a theme here yet?
Totally false. Probably the most-repeated myth right now isn’t even related to TPA but instead to the TPP, which is still being negotiated. According to the anti-TPA script, the TPP is so secret that nobody knows what’s in it, and—much like Obamacare legislation—nobody, not even Congress, will know what’s in it until the agreement is passed into law. Once again, however, nothing could be further from the truth:
Bottom line: when or if TPA is passed, the general public will have months—and if the presidential elections interfere, maybe years—to review the TPP before Congress acts on it. Think that’s crazy? Well, it’s precisely what happened to U.S. FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which were signed by President Bush but sat around (online) for years before they were submitted to, and passed by, Congress in 2011.
Totally false, as Watson and I explained last year:
FTAs embody unenforceable promises governments make to each other. Domestic governments—here, Congress—retain the sole authority to ignore those promises and violate international commitments, and they (unfortunately) do so frequently. Foreign governments cannot force their trading partners to comply with the terms of an FTA—the only extra-national consequence of a violation is that other parties to the agreement may abrogate their commitments in a commensurate amount (e.g., by raising tariffs on imports from the United States from levels that were lowered in the FTA). Moreover, every U.S. trade agreement permits the parties to act outside the agreed disciplines in the name of, among other things, national security, public health and safety, or environmental protection. Thus, the idea that TPA and FTAs violate U.S. sovereignty or regulatory autonomy is patently false.
These principles hold true for the TPP, including its dispute settlement and controversial “investor-state” provisions. Despite what Warren (and some media outlets) would like you to believe, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that can force the United States to comply with an adverse dispute settlement ruling issued under the TPP or any other U.S. trade agreement. Period.
But, hey, if you don’t believe me, here’s Attorney General Meese again:
Future trade deals would not be unconstitutional, nor would they undermine U.S. sovereignty, if they contained an agreement to submit some disputes to an international tribunal for an initial determination. The United States will always have the ultimate say over what its domestic laws provide. No future agreement could grant an international organization the power to change U.S. laws.
If that’s not clear enough for you, then I don’t know what is.
Totally false. Various politicians and pundits have sought to arouse suspicions by claiming, among other things, that TPA will permit President Obama to bypass Congress and use the TPP as a backdoor to, among other things, lawlessly expand immigration, curtail gun rights, or restrict Internet freedom. At this point, however, I hope you can see just how ridiculous these claims are. Regardless of the issue, the fact will always remain that nothing can be implemented via the TPP unless Congress agrees to implement it via a formal vote.
This would include things like new work visas (something that U.S. FTAs haven’t actually done for years now) or Internet regulations or gun rules or minimum wages or whatever: it all has to become law before it has any legal force, and the only people making law are Congress (and, again, according to their own procedural rules). So, if in the TPP the president committed the United States to toss every AR-15 into the Atlantic Ocean, those guns aren’t going anywhere unless Congress formally agrees, subject to all of the constitutional, procedural, and transparency rules already discussed.
We still don’t know precisely what’s in the TPP, and final judgment—by Congress and the public—should therefore be withheld until we do. But the idea that TPP, empowered by TPA, will grant President Obama any new legal authority to ignore or change U.S. immigration or gun or whatever laws without Congress is simply ludicrous.
Myth 8: FTAs (and free trade generally) benefit large corporations at the expense of working people!
Mostly false. There is little doubt that FTAs benefit some U.S. corporations and workers, while harming others—that’s kinda free-market competition’s thing.
Nevertheless, there is also little doubt that (i) FTAs are pretty much the only trade liberalization game in town these days; (ii) while unpalatable, the cronyist exceptions in U.S. FTAs, are relatively minor compared to the overall liberalization; and (iii) the biggest winners from such liberalization aren’t corporations or the mega-rich, but consumers, particularly poor ones.
Mostly false. Look, in an ideal world, all of these trade deals would be totally unnecessary: every government in the world would lower its trade barriers, kill its subsidies, and trade freely across borders, thereby enriching us all in the process. But that’s not our world. And even though some pro-TPA rhetoric is exaggerated, the legislation still has value for at least one big reason: U.S. trading partners take it seriously and won’t sign off on a final deal with the United States until TPA’s in place.
Indeed, over the last few months, officials from Japan, Canada, and Chile (among others) have each made clear that their governments won’t finalize TPP until Congress passes TPA. And, again, it’s precisely for this reason that U.S. protectionists are spending major dollars to stop TPA: they don’t really think it’s going to destroy constitutional democracy and install a world government ruled by Emperor Obama; they just oppose free trade or the TPP. And they’re more than happy to prey on conservative insecurities to achieve their goal.
Since the 1940s, the United States, whether governed by Democrats or Republicans, has been the world’s leader on global trade policy. This leadership, due in part to President Obama’s mismanagement and disinterest, has waned in recent years. A defeat for TPA—and any resulting death of the TPP—would accelerate this decline.
There are legitimate (although not horrifying!) concerns about the contents of the final TPP deal, but it’s certainly not a harbinger of an economic or constitutional apocalypse. The American public should scrutinize the final agreement closely, but that won’t happen until TPA becomes law. For supporters of free markets, there’s no legitimate reason why it shouldn’t.