The U.S. is slowly building momentum for two historic trade pacts: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  But without trade promotion authority (TPA) – which grants the president the right to negotiate a non-amendable deal with expedited floor debate – these deals will never pass.  So say America’s lead trade negotiators, past and present.

Congress has just introduced legislation granting TPA (or “fast track”) to President Obama, the usual suspects have drawn a line in the sand, creating a tumult surrounding our future trade agenda in the process. Unfortunately, the noise is such that those actually in the room negotiating have gotten lost in the fray.


If Washington would turn to its once and present U.S. Trade Representatives (USTRs), they would recognize that the response is as overwhelming as it is bipartisan: Grant TPA.

“You cannot conclude and get through Congress any kind of detailed trade agreement without the president having Trade Promotion Authority.”  This is not, as many would expect, a quote from current USTR Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanOn The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report MORE.  Rather, these are the words of Susan Schwab, who served in that position from 2006 to 2009, under President George W. Bush.  Notably, Schwab delivered the line during a Miller Center conference in 2013 – five years into the Obama presidency.

Her point was echoed by President Clinton’s lead trade negotiator from 1993 to 1996, Mickey Kantor: “No one is going to sit down and negotiate with you if they think you’re going to go back to the Congress of the United States and they’re going to amend your trade agreement, and therefore what you’ve negotiated is no good.”  In fact, pick any USTR since 1974 – when fast track was first approved – and you will get a similar response. 

This, of course, is to be expected on grounds of self-interest.  After all, negotiating with less authority would inherently weaken the position of a USTR.  But their counterparts overseas are saying the same thing.

Consider some of the recent comments made by those negotiating TPP. Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari has called TPA “an essential condition to the TPP agreement.” New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser added that TPA is “crucial,” and that certain countries will not move forward unless the White House has it.  Similar statements have been made from our Atlantic trade partners.  As Kantor said bluntly: “If we can’t get Trade Promotion Authority, we cannot get these agreements.”

So where do we go from here?

There is a battle being waged on Capitol Hill.  The architects of the new bill - Senate Finance Committee leaders Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal MORE (D-Ore.) and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) – are clearly committed to extending TPA. However, they face pressure from peers and an array of constituencies to toggle existing language to meet the needs of today.  For his part, Obama is willing to make concessions. For instance, he is visibly working to ensure that labor advocates receive allowances within a legislative end product.    

This is a wise course of action – and one that aligns with the historical debate over fast track.  TPA has always been a living, breathing tool.  It has not been a static, unimpeachable instrument since 1974 as some have posited.  Politics and external realities have conspired to thwart requests before.  Gaps in authorization are common.  TPA has not been in place since 2007.  It was also withheld from 1994 to 2002.

This is largely due to the increasing complexity of global trade.  As more and more issues get put on the table, Congress faces additional pressure from its constituencies.  Thus, they are more hesitant to willingly cede authority.

But every so often external factors and deft maneuvering supersede their growing recalcitrance.  President Clinton was able to hold on to TPA as long as he did by making a compelling case for NAFTA and other free trade agreements (FTAs).  President Bush got TPA when a score of new FTAs as well as the Doha Round of the WTO arose.

History also tells us that the president’s willingness to engage can help mollify antagonists.  For example, Bush’s authorization included labor and environmental provisions and the creation of a congressional consultation group.  Even then, the final bill only passed the house 215 to 212.

The stakes today extend far beyond the president’s trade authority.  Failure on TPP and TTIP would be a major diplomatic setback for the administration and to relations with our friends along the Atlantic and Pacific.  It would also deal a significant blow to the future of global trade liberalization.  As USTR Clayton Yeutter (1985-1989) said, TPP and TTIP are the “building blocks” of that agenda.

This is a worthy debate, and one that we should be having.  The global economy has changed considerably since 1974.  TPA must be recalibrated to operate under the current landscape.  And the president must be willing to embrace a fast track for the 21st century.

But as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently stated, “Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has had some mechanism like TPA.”  This president should be no different.

Chidester is director of Policy and Lucadamo is lead policy analyst at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.