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Biden's trade 'reset' depends on what happens with trade promotion authority

Biden's trade 'reset' depends on what happens with trade promotion authority
© Greg Nash/Pool

President Joe BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE is being asked at home and abroad to “reset” U.S. trade policy. There are calls for him to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), get a U.S.-UK trade deal, reform the Word Trade Organization (WTO) and solve Boeing-Airbus. It’s a lengthy list. Where to start? By asking for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), so long as it still works in the post-Trump era.

TPA debuted in the 1974 Trade Act. It allows the president to negotiate a trade deal and submit it to Congress for an up-or-down vote on a set timeline. This means no amendments and ensures that a vote is actually held, which in turn makes trade negotiations more credible in the eyes of domestic stakeholders and foreign trade partners. It’s about Congress and the president talking from the same script. TPA is set to expire on July 1, 2021. To reset U.S. trade policy, Biden should start by asking for TPA.

But there may be a problem. President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE’s frequent use of Section 232 has Congress looking to rein in executive authority on trade. Draft legislation in both the House and Senate aims to limit the president’s use of these national security tariffs unless the Department of Defense or Congress signs off. These bills make sense given that Trump wielded Section 232 against friend and foe alike. The worry, however, is that the inspiration for these bills may lead to a rethink of TPA as well.

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That would be a mistake. TPA has underpinned U.S. trade policy since the Tokyo Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Completing the WTO, and the signing of all of America’s modern trade deals except U.S.-Jordan, was concluded under TPA.

The issue isn’t the instructions that comes with TPA. The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 has a lengthy list of principles the president is expected to deliver on. Rather, the issue is what happens along the way to a timed up-or-down vote. TPA gives Congress a variety of ways to review, and reject, what the president negotiates. Yet, more congressional oversight would do irreparable harm to TPA, and undermine U.S. credibility.

Back in 2015, the House vote on TPA was close: 218-206. The Senate split 60-38. One of the concerns raised was that, given the expanding scope of trade negotiations, Congress should play a bigger role. This could mean a lot of things, but if it means amendment, then TPA is dead.

Biden can help reassure Congress about TPA by saying what he plans to do with Section 232. He should also explain his views of Section 301, especially how he’ll use it differently than Trump, whose tariffs against China inspired 3,500 American companies to sue for tariff refunds at the U.S. Court of International Trade.

These conversations should be had with foreign trade partners as well. The WTO ruled against some of Trump’s Section 301 tariffs, and his Section 232 tariffs triggered nine disputes against the U.S., causing havoc with allies, in particular. Biden’s hope for a multilateral approach to trade, and especially China, will require that he address the issue of U.S. “unilateralism” head on.

TPA is more than principles and mechanisms. It’s a statement of the intent of Congress and the president to work together on a rational, forward-looking trade policy. In the wake of Trump’s ad hoc and endless volley of tariffs, this message needs to be heard at home as much as it does abroad. 

Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and host of the podcast TradeCraft.