The U.S.’s Faltering Commitment to Liberal Trade

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Last week, President Joe Biden lost his ability to conclude international trade agreements without the close involvement of Congress. You might wonder, so what? In practical terms, the end of his Trade Promotion Authority makes no difference. It isn’t as though Biden had been trying to get his fast-track dispensation renewed, and he’s shown no ambition to forge big new trade-promoting agreements in any event.

All true. Yet the unlamented expiration of TPA is still worth noting. It marks one more step away from America’s longtime commitment to liberal trade.

Congress granted the president fast-track authority to strike trade deals in 1974. From time to time, the delegation comes to an end and needs to be renewed. Previous administrations have generally wanted to maintain the arrangement, knowing that striking new deals is difficult without it. Trading partners are wary of granting concessions when they know the White House can’t come to terms and sign off on its own. Trade deals are complex, balancing perceived costs and benefits across a wide range of issues. They’re at great risk of unravelling if Congress is free to rewrite the U.S. position line by line after the fact.

Few would disagree that to be a credible partner in such talks the U.S. needs to grant the president and his advisers power to negotiate unilaterally. TPA’s critics over the years have understood this and been commendably frank about their reasoning. They don’t want the U.S. to be a credible partner, because they don’t want to promote trade.

The Biden administration has lately been engaged in trade talks with the U.K. and Kenya. Its lassitude over TPA shows how much it cares about wrapping those agreements up. More broadly, U.S. relations with friends and allies around the world depend in no small part on trade and commerce. Standing aside while other countries deepen their trade relationships weakens U.S. power and influence. It denies the U.S. a voice in shaping global standards as patterns of trade activity shift and new issues (such as the strengthening of supply chains) arise. 

In a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai deflected questions about TPA, saying that the administration first needed to rethink the objectives of trade agreements. The objectives don’t need rethinking. For decades, the U.S. has built its strength and global standing on trade and competition. Lowering barriers to trade serves its interests, and everybody else’s. The sooner the administration grasps this, the better.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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