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TPA’s ‘Whoa, if true’ moment

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Ida.), one of the most outspoken conservatives in the House, recently told reporters that “most” of his GOP colleagues who have concerns about Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) would vote for it if they knew it guaranteed Congress an up-or-down vote on any proposed trade agreements.

“Whoa, if true,” wrote one of the reporters covering the monthly panel discussion by conservative lawmakers. Labrador’s statement was startling because the TPA bill before the House does guarantee Congress an up-or-down vote on subsequent trade agreements – meaning perhaps all the drama over the bill is over a mere misunderstanding. 

{mosads}In 2013, 22 House Republicans actually wrote in a letter to President Obama their belief that TPA would grant President Obama the power to “sign trade agreements before Congress has an opportunity to vote on them.”

But as the Heritage Foundation’s Bryan Riley wrote is his analysis, “In fact, TPA explicitly requires that Congress vote on trade agreements before they can take effect.”

The bill itself says “any” relevant agreement “shall enter into force with respect to the United States if (and only if)….the implementing bill is enacted into law.”

As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) explain in a recent joint op-ed, most of the content of the bill is actually requirements on the executive branch to disclose information to Congress and consult with Congress on the negotiations. 

“Before anything becomes law, Congress gets the final say,” Cruz and Paul write, adding, “The Constitution vests all legislative power in Congress. So TPA makes it clear that Congress—and only Congress—can change U.S. law. If the administration meets all the requirements, Congress will give the agreement an up-or-down vote. But if the administration fails, Congress can hit the brakes, cancel the vote and stop the agreement.”

A related concern is not that Congress won’t get to vote on trade agreements under TPA – it will – but that with all the pressure from the business community to pass the final trade agreement, President Obama will be able to sneak through radical left-wing policies cloaked in the fine print of the agreement. 

This concern, while having the benefit of not resting on a falsehood about what the TPA does, suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding about the politics of the TPA. Namely: Democrats don’t want to vote for the trade agreements that will come to the House floor because they are facing unbelievable political pressure from the union and environmental groups that are leading the opposition against free trade. 

For the last 20 months of Obama’s presidency, the Republicans are in the driver’s seat on trade, especially under TPA. The president will need their votes to clear the deals, and if he violates some of the wide-ranging restrictions in TPA outlining his negotiating priorities, it would be even easier for congressional Republicans to stop trade deals that come before them. 

A final, tangential concern is that Obama has shown his willingness to flout the law in other areas, like his far-reaching executive action on immigration. 

A GOP House aide was recently asked by a constituent, “if the president won’t abide by the Constitution, what gives you any confidence that he’ll abide by TPA?”

The concern is, on the one hand, a legitimate one, at least regarding Obama’s penchant for running roughshod over the law. But it makes no sense to respond to Obama’s actions by declining to pass new laws, especially those that put new restrictions on him. If Obama refuses to follow the law, it’s not the fault of the law – and no ingeniously designed law would stop him, either. 

The 22 House Republicans who betrayed a misunderstanding about TPA in their letter began the document by noting, “We are strong supporters of American trade expansion.”

And so they should be. Free trade has long been a core pillar of conservative belief, and improved countless millions of lives here and abroad as consumers benefit from lower prices and businesses benefit from increased market opportunities. With that principle, the TPA bill before the House, once properly understood, is a clear conservative win.

Horowitz is an independent consultant specializing in public policy strategy, coalition building and development. He has served as staff for conservative members in both the U.S. House and Senate. 

Tags Paul Ryan Ted Cruz

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