Mar 06, 2015 - 9:00am

Conservative Leadership in the Year of Trade


Senior Vice President for International Policy

With good reason, 2015 is being called the Year of Trade. Not only does the United States boast a historically ambitious trade agenda — with work moving ahead to renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and conclude major trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — but everyone in the constitutional line of succession is committed to moving it forward.

To put it mildly, this doesn’t happen very often. But from President Barack Obama to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, there’s a bipartisan commitment to getting things done on trade.

The strong commitment of conservatives on this point is especially clear. Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, recently offered some keen observations on this theme in The Nelson Report, a newsletter focused on U.S.-Asia economic relations. Noting the powerful role of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Lohman observes:

That conservatives support — indeed, lead, the cause for free trade — should come as no surprise. … Were it not for the “tea party” surge in 2010, America’s most significant free trade agreement since NAFTA, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), also initiated by the Bush Administration, would still be languishing somewhere along Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, KORUS passed with so many Republican votes in the House that it could have passed on them alone.

No, the important thing about Paul Ryan’s speech [on February 5 to the Washington International Trade Association] was not the substance of free trade. Conservatives are lock step on that. The important thing was a matter of process — Ryan’s ringing endorsement of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). This is where Ryan is exercising the sort of leadership worthy of a one-time vice presidential standard bearer, the trusted conservative voice on a ticket about which many of his colleagues had their doubts.

His leadership is critical at this point, because if there were conservative doubts about the top of the Republican presidential ticket in 2012, they pale in comparison to doubts about giving our current President additional authority, over anything. But, as Ryan eloquently pointed out, the TPA empowers Congress:

“Here’s how. Nothing stops the Administration from negotiating a deal without our input. So, if we waited till after the negotiations are done to get involved -- if we simply reacted to what the Administration put in front of us -- we might kill the deal. That means we have to get involved before the deal is done, not after it’s finished. We have to be proactive, not reactive.

“That’s what TPA does. We call this process ‘trade promotion authority.’ But I think of it more as a contract. We say to the Administration, if you want this up-or-down vote, you have to meet three requirements: Number one, you have to follow our guidelines. Number two, you have to talk to us. And number three, you have to remember: We get the final say.”

Lohman is correct about the historic support of conservatives for trade liberalization. Also addressing this topic recently is Claude Barfield, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute with years of experience in trade policy. In a piece in The American entitled “Trade Promotion Authority: A winning bargain for Congress and the president,” Barfield examines the constitutional concerns of some conservatives relating to TPA and finds them “rebuttable.”

The congressional fingerprint is on every step in the TPA process, from the framing of mandated trade objectives and priorities, to continuous consultation and feedback, to the crafting of implementing legislation, and finally, to the up-or-down final decision on an FTA.

U.S. sovereignty is closely guarded and reinforced through specific clauses that nullify any section of an agreement that is inconsistent with U.S. law. Further, a congressional vote on TPA is not a vote in favor of FTAs pursuant to its mandates. Congress can and will exercise an independent judgment as to whether these agreements reflect its mandates to the president and are in the interest of the American people.

Without TPA, the United States would not be able to achieve its own negotiating goals, as our trading partners would hold back their own bottom-line compromises out of fear that the president and the USTR could not guarantee the steadfastness and good faith of the US political process.

Lohman closes by quoting Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who “pointed out to a Heritage audience last month, the good of trade requires members to vote for things that aren’t perfect. It takes leadership to help find that sweet spot of principle and action.” Exactly.

About the Author

About the Author

Senior Vice President for International Policy

Murphy directs the U.S. Chamber’s advocacy relating to international trade and investment policy.