Opposition to 'fast track' - small thinking with big downside

Reflexive opposition to President Obama’s push for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track”) reflects a desire to prioritize parochial pandering over what is best for American workers, not to mention our closest allies around the world. Pending economic agreements with European and Pacific nations, which have the potential to jumpstart global growth, need lawmakers to take a broader view.

Statements in opposition to fast track authority less than 24 hours after President Obama made the case for it during his State of the Union address thrilled union bosses and perhaps some vulnerable senators looking to get reelected in November. Unfortunately it also undercut a key bipartisan plank of the president’s economic agenda, while dismaying our negotiating partners in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Mexico.  This is yet another sad case of special interest politics trumping the general national interest.

The downsides to this provincial posturing are legion.

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Undermines one of the best opportunities to grow jobs and increase incomes.  The Obama administration has rightly identified that expanded trade grows jobs. Both of the deals in question would boost exports and help create high-value jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors, though some occupations may be lost in areas where America is less competitive.

Puts President Obama in a bind. The president has made tightening America’s relationship with the fast growing Asian region a key plank of the nation’s economic and foreign policy. During my recent travels to Asia, I was repeatedly told how damaging it was for America’s standing in the region and the progress of Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations for President Obama to miss the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in October 2013 due to the government shutdown.  The administration had hoped to make up lost ground and reach agreement by the time President Obama visits the region in April. Tea Party Republicans caused the first self-inflicted wound. Democrats’ attempts to slow-roll TPA could be the next.

Short circuits recent baby steps in the direction of bipartisan collaboration. After a fruitless faceoff that resulted in a government shutdown, Budget Committee leaders in both chambers came together to negotiate a compromise that removed the threat of another closure, while replacing some of sequestration’s blunt prescriptions with more targeted savings. 

That first step, coupled with a Republican desire to work on immigration reform, seemed to be the start of a foray into bipartisan consensus building. Overtly partisan opposition to fast track threatens that progress.

Drives a wedge between America and our most important allies. If trade agreements represent a welcoming gesture to new suppliers and consumers, derailing the negotiations over a procedural matter such as fast track is tantamount to slamming the door in a guest’s face.

As Europe continues to struggle to lift itself up off the mat, it is placing great hope in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to spark economic vitality on both sides of the Atlantic.

It took great courage for Japan to agree to open up its economy and join with the United States and ten other Pacific Rim nations to pursue closer trade relationships. Having taken this bold step forward, Japan and others worry that America is turning inward and leaving them behind.  To abort these trade discussions would signal an isolationist turn by America.

Leaves America less competitive. Rejecting expanded trade to avoid competition will make American enterprise worse off in the long run. As Jason Furman, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors stated, “If you’re not in an agreement – that trade will be diverted from us to someone else – we will lose out to another country.”

Succumbing to protectionist urges for the sake of union support, defense of uncompetitive companies, or populist appeal may seem attractive in the short-term, but its ultimate aftermath -- an American economy that is smaller, more sheltered, and less competitive -- is disastrous.

If you seek to sacrifice job growth, hamstring the president, return to non-stop partisan bickering, alienate essential allies, and relegate America to being a second rate economy, the choice is clear: oppose TPA and the pending European and Pacific trade accords.

If you believe that a core strength of America is that its open economy has created an environment that creates businesses able to take on all comers and that the spread of international prosperity through expanded trade makes us more secure, you should support TPA. 

Kennedy served in the House of Representatives from 2001 toi 2007. He leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota.