Donald Trump’s top priority on his first day in office, per a video released by his transition team, will be to formally withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and instead “negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.” This move would officially rupture the bipartisan consensus on globalization, and adherents to that view are sick with worry. They solemnly warn of the damage to American geopolitical prestige. They fear that China and Russia will exploit the global power vacuum to install their own free-trade zone under their own rules. And they note ruefully that other countries in the region are flocking to join such pacts.
Set aside the fact that stronger economic integration in the Pacific Rim would boost the US economy. There’s also the point that deliberately excluding China from TPP negotiations kind of disqualifies objections to China doing the same thing. But Trump’s announcement should actually lead to a broader question: If the United States is closing out the era of multilateral trade agreements, why does the president need fast-track trade authority? Democrats looking to signal their support for working families and expose Trump’s lack of interest in their well-being should be asking this.
Fast track, most recently passed in June 2015, streamlines the process for trade agreements to advance through Congress. It guarantees a timely floor vote in the House and Senate without committee markups, filibusters, or the possibility of amendment. With fast track, Congress loses the ability to choose negotiating partners or influence the final product. They can provide negotiating objectives for future deals, but there’s no mechanism to penalize presidents for not following them.
The ostensible purpose of fast track was to give the executive branch latitude in negotiating complicated deals with multiple partners, preventing Congress from micromanaging the process. If Congress could amend the TPP, the theory goes, then Japan would want some provision in exchange for accepting the amendment, and Australia something else, and Vietnam something else, until the entire delicately balanced agreement unraveled. As California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a fast-track supporter, stressed on the Senate floor during a previous fast-track debate in 2002, “Our trade negotiators need fast track to tackle the difficult, complex, and diverse issues that inevitably arise in multilateral talks and get our partners to put the best deal on the table.”
But Trump has neutralized that argument. He wants to do bilateral trade deals with individual partners. And there’s a long history of accomplishing those without fast track.