Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The Obama administration wants a renewal of its congressionally granted authority to get fast-track legislative treatment of trade agreements. Michael Froman, the president’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, said in confirmation testimony that he'll be back to ask for it soon.

That power, known officially as trade-promotion authority, began in 1974 when the U.S. joined the Tokyo Round of multilateral trade talks -- but it expired in 2007. It allowed the executive branch to negotiate trade deals and prevented Congress from filibustering or amending them, requiring an up-or-down vote after no more than 20 hours of debate.

The U.S. is now working on two trade deals of historic size -- one with the European Union, another with an assortment of Pacific-Rim nations. The Obama administration says it needs the authority to strike good bargains.

Is that right? The case for trade-promotion authority should be considered separately from the case for liberal trade. Free traders and trade skeptics alike are apt to bundle the two issues together. Whatever you views on liberal trade, the case for fast-track deserves consideration on its merits.

The best argument is that breakthrough deals -- ones with sensitive concessions on both sides -- become all but impossible without it. Imagine you’re a negotiator from a foreign country. You might be prepared to yield on some issues, such as a tariff that enjoys wide popular support at home, but only if you get something significant in return. What you won’t do is make concessions and then let the other guy back out of his side of the bargain. That's the risk when Congress is allowed to amend negotiated agreements.

There are arguments against fast-track authority, too. It limits congressional input on the content of trade agreements, and it tilts the balance of legislative power in favor of those who gain from liberal trade and away from those who might be injured by it. These are fair points, but both can be addressed while restoring authority.

Congress isn't looking to negotiate the agreements themselves -- what its members want is a voice early in the process. Under the old authority, congressional hearings about the treaty happened late and outside the legislative process. In a new authority, relevant committees could be given automatic hearings whenever the president notifies Congress of his intention to begin negotiations, with regular meetings to follow.

To encourage policies that mitigate the impact of trade agreements, a new trade-promotion authority could provide for a similar up-or-down vote on an associated domestic-policy bill. This would have to exclude tariff or other trade measures but could include, for instance, an expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which provides aid, re-training and career counseling to displaced workers. The package would equalize the leverage of trade and labor interests.

Trade promotion authority is an essential tool -- there's no other way to get round the commitment problem it addresses. But linking fast-track authority to trade-adjustment policies would give even better results.

(Evan Soltas is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)