Before presidential politics — the game of getting to 270 electoral votes — completely eclipses governing, there is the urgent task of getting to 217 votes in the House of Representatives to pass trade-promotion authority (TPA). This would guarantee a vote without amendments on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Without TPA, any trade agreement will be nibbled to death in Congress by those eager to do organized labor’s bidding. So, Republicans who oppose TPA are collaborating with those who oppose increasing the velocity and rationality of economic life.
TPA touches on two challenging problems: one economic, one constitutional. Regarding both, conservatives have special responsibilities.
The economic challenge is to generate economic growth sufficient to restore vigor and upward mobility to an underemployed America, sustaining national security and entitlements as, every day, another 10,000 baby boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. The constitutional problem is how to restore institutional equilibrium by bringing the presidency back within the restraints the Founders devised with the separation of powers.
Only conservatives can turn economic policy away from the self-defeating aim of redistribution and toward growth. This goal would be advanced by the trade agreement among the 12 nations who together account for 37 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and one-third of world trade. Defeating TPA, and thus the agreement, is a service most House Democrats will perform for a reactionary faction, organized labor. Defeat would, however, make economic dynamism even more elusive, punishing the nation without meaningfully disciplining the president.
This vote comes in the turgid wake of a first quarter in which the economy shrank 0.7 percent — the third quarterly contraction during the anemic recovery that is slouching into its seventh year. The aging recovery began in June 2009; another recession may arrive without there having been a real recovery from the previous one. For Democrats devoted to policies of redistribution, economic growth is an afterthought. Only Republicans can make possible the freer trade that can combat the lingering stagnation that is Barack Obama’s painful legacy.
This month, Republicans can extinguish the Export-Import Bank, a deplorable instrument for government intervention in economic transactions, simply by not reauthorizing it. How perverse it would be to do so while also opposing TPA and (hence, in effect) freer trade, which would make economic activity less subject to distortions by governments.
In the 19th century, Republicans embraced a braid of vices — big government and crony capitalism. Adept at using tariffs to purchase the loyalty of particular constituencies, Republicans opposed free trade. Democrats in the 21st century generally want government, rather than markets, to regulate commerce and allocate opportunity, so they recoil from any enlargement of the sphere of economic freedom. The fact that TPA would make possible the ratification of an agreement that is an imperfect enlargement is no reason for Republicans to help Democrats protect the power of governments to further politicize economic life.
Some Republicans are understandably reluctant to give any satisfaction to Obama, who disdains them as much as he does constitutional limits on presidential power. But a stopped clock is right twice a day, and he rightly favors freer trade.
Some Republicans resist granting this authority, a traditional presidential prerogative, to a president who has so arrogantly disregarded limits on executive discretion. It is, however, unnecessary to defeat so-called fast-track authority (thereby defeating freer trade) in order to restrain this rogue president. The 22nd Amendment guarantees his departure in 19 months. His lawlessness has prompted congressional resistance on multiplying fronts. The judiciary, too, has repeatedly rebuked him for illegal executive overreaches. So it is neither necessary nor statesmanlike to injure the nation’s future in order to protest Obama’s past.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) campaigned hard to prevent a second Obama term, but he strongly favors TPA. He notes that if Obama’s negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program were being conducted under guarantees of congressional involvement similar to those contained in TPA, Congress would enjoy statutorily required briefings on the negotiations and access to the negotiating documents. Furthermore, any agreement with Iran would have to be made public for examination at least 60 days before Obama signed it, after which the agreement could not take effect unless Congress approves it.
Obama has all the friends in Congress he has earned and deserves, so even among Democrats this cohort is vanishingly small. By passing TPA, House Republicans can achieve a fine trifecta, demonstrating their ability to rise above their justifiable resentments, underscoring his dependence on them and on Congress and illustrating his party’s dependence on factions inimical to economic vitality.