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Ponnuru: Pondering Obama, Republicans and free trade

Trade-promotion authority is the rare issue where President Barack Obama is closer to congressional Republicans than Democrats.

Rep. Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told me he’s eager to give that authority to Obama and to the next president. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he won’t let it happen.

Supporters of free trade should hope that Obama and Camp win this one. But they should also reconsider whether trade-promotion authority ought to be as central to their game plan as it has been the past few decades.

When Congress passes trade-promotion authority, it says that if the president submits a trade agreement it will get an up-or-down vote, with no amendments, within three months. The idea is that other countries will be more likely to make a trade deal with the U.S. if they know the terms won’t be renegotiated on Capitol Hill.

For a long time, this procedure really did promote trade liberalization, and Camp appeals to this record in making his case. “Every president since FDR has had this authority,” he told me. He thinks renewing the authority will help talks over a free-trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim countries succeed, and enable other agreements in the future.

And if presidents aren’t given that authority? “There are other avenues to negotiate new markets with, and other countries don’t have our systems of government,” he said. In other words: Countries will make deals with China or Russia, not the U.S.

Even so, the old argument for trade-promotion authority has lost some of its force. K. William Watson, who studies trade for the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group, argued in December that passing the trade-promotion authority just to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership didn’t make sense. Talks were already well underway, and could be slowed down by the new negotiating demands Congress would make as a condition for passing the authority.

Watson points out that the standard procedure for freeing trade requires winning two votes in Congress: First the authority has to be granted, and then the final deal passed. “Why have the same debate twice?” he asks. It’s actually worse than that, because it’s harder to get the trade-promotion authority than to enact a deal.

Congress hasn’t granted the authority since 2002, when a Republican House passed it by a 215-212 vote. It lapsed in 2007. Yet Congress has been able to pass several notable trade agreements by wide margins since then. In 2011, a free-trade deal with Colombia got 262 votes in the House, one with South Korea got 278, and one with Panama got 300.

Watson concedes that, at this point, the Obama administration can’t walk away from its demand for trade-promotion authority without sending a bad signal about its resolve to complete trade deals. But that resolve is, in fact, in question. A few days after Reid said trade-promotion authority was going nowhere, he had a long meeting with Obama. Afterward, Reid said that trade hadn’t even come up.

Which brings us back to Watson’s point. If Obama negotiates a free-trade deal in the Pacific, he will have to hit up his fellow Democrats in Congress again to approve it. It might have been better for the president to dispense with trade-promotion authority altogether: to get an agreement and then move straight to a vote. That way he wouldn’t have to make so many requests, and create so many chances to be turned down.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review. Reach him at

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