In the coming weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to take up what will likely be the most significant piece of legislation for the U.S. economy and American global leadership in several years – namely, Trade Promotion Authority. TPA has been the topic of much debate in Congress and across the country. As former U.S. Trade Representatives, one for a Republican and the other for a Democratic Administration, we have had a front row-seat to the importance of good trade agreements for American industry, agriculture and workers. 

Coming from different political persuasions, we certainly do not agree on everything.  We do, however, agree strongly, that TPA makes sense for America – starting with our economic health and the wellbeing of our citizens, U.S. competitiveness, and the nation’s geopolitical standing in the world.  In addition, as the debate evolves in the House, we believe we can offer unique lessons learned about the importance of TPA as the nation’s former chief trade strategists and negotiators. 

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Better trade agreements:  Without TPA, the U.S. might be able to get another country to close a trade agreement with us (we are dubious), but would you give the U.S. your bottom line or those last few tough concessions knowing the Congress could later make changes in an agreed deal that involves dozens of chapters and thousands of interlocking parts?  We do not think so. The United States can get better deals with TPA.  

“Soft power” and leading by example:  What better way to project global leadership than by setting the rules of the road for international commerce.  Congress cannot do this on its own, but can task the president to use trade agreements with like-minded trading partners to influence other nations to embrace market-oriented reforms.  Absent U.S. leadership, we have seen a proliferation of protectionist and trade-distorting measures that have hurt US workers, manufacturers, agriculture and services.  Failure to approve TPA would be a blow to the credibility and leadership of the United States – not solely of the Congress or the presidency.  

Constitutional checks and balances:  TPA creates a careful and practical bridge between Article I Section 8 and Article II of our Constitution.  What started as an advance delegation of authority to the president in the 1930s (following the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act), has since 1974 been TPA-like authority with post-agreement votes of approval or disapproval.  TPA is really just the House and Senate deciding ahead of time the procedures each body intends to use to vote on completed trade agreements.  By using TPA to set out its key priorities – Congress also alerts U.S. negotiators and trading partners that a deal risks defeat if these are not respected.  

Transparency and inclusion:  The modernized 2015 version of TPA contains exhaustive means to ensure active input and consultations over negotiations by the widest possible array of U.S. interests, including industry and services sector experts, farm groups, environmental, labor and consumer advocates, and their elected representatives in Congress.  Many of these participants have security clearances and access to classified negotiating documents during the negotiations. 

Economic stimulus without busting the budget:  Trade liberalizing agreements are tax cuts and the elimination of unnecessary red tape.  Tariffs are taxes that impact US exports and consumers, including manufacturers and small businesses.  Streamlining layers of customs regulations at foreign borders, expands trade and reduces corruption.  Intellectual property rights and investment policies that no longer allow forced technology transfer, allow U.S. innovations to flourish in export markets.  Reducing or eliminating the impact of trade-distorting subsidies, promotes fairer trade.  In fact, the history of trade agreements finds wise leaders and legislators at home and abroad leveraging domestic reforms that help their economies and people prosper in the long run -- to gain overseas market access and increase exports. 

Past due:  Recently we were joined by six other former U.S. Trade Representatives - Bill Brock, Clayton Yeutter, Carla Hills, Charlene Barshefsky, Robert Zoellick, and Ron Kirk - in a letter calling on Congress to pass TPA. Together, we have since the Reagan Administration, closed free trade agreements with twenty countries, two multilateral agreements involving over 100 countries, and deals freeing up trade in entire sectors. But we can also point to deals left undone -- when it was clear we could not meet the objectives Congress had laid out for us in TPA legislation, knowing Congress always has the final say. 

The bottom line is TPA should not be seen as a partisan, political issue – instead, it is a tool to empower the United States.​

TPA is not just for this president, but needs to be in place for the next. It has been absent from the policy toolbox since 2007, and it shows – with over 100 new regional trade deals in effect that exclude the US since we walked off the field.  It’s time.

Kantor was U.S. Trade Representative from 1993 to 1997. Schwab was USTR from 2006 to 2009.