EDITORIAL: Reviving free-trade agreements would revive the economy

Should Congress trust Obama with Trade Promotion Authority?

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America’s economic engine needs a jump start. Everyone agrees on that much. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that U.S. production shrank 2.9 percent in the first quarter of 2014, while corporate profits tumbled 9 percent from last year’s numbers. One way out of this would be to give President Obama more power.

That sounds to most ears like a terrible idea. This president has assumed far more authority than he’s entitled to, at the expense of Congress and the Constitution, neither of which he holds in high regard. But there is one area in which Congress should consider boosting the power of the executive, by enacting a version of Trade Promotion Authority.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, presidents have enjoyed the authority to fast-track trade agreements. The basic idea is that the president can pursue trade negotiations while faithfully keeping Congress in the loop. Once a deal is struck, Congress must, within a certain time, vote for or against the trade pact, without amendments. The law establishing this expedited framework expired in 2007. Congress should make it crystal clear to Mr. Obama that he does not get to make up changes to suit himself.

Renewing this authority would direct the attention of policymakers to places where they ought to be looking for growth: overseas. More than 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power, 92 percent of its economic growth and 95 percent of the consumers live outside the United States. Encouraging free-trade deals helps American businesses — and their employees — to thrive by allowing importation of certain raw materials, basic components and machinery that could be used to lower production costs of American goods. That helps competitiveness.

The only free-trade deals enacted by this administration were deals negotiated under President George W. Bush. More agreements are needed to cut through foreign barriers to U.S. goods and services. Without streamlined procedures, no trade deals would likely make it through Congress, and 40 million Americans, whose jobs depend on exports and imports, are getting short shrift.

Preliminary work on free-trade deals has already been done with the European Union, Taiwan, New Zealand and other allies. This is one area (and maybe the only one) that Congress might with confidence entrust the president with a bit more authority. The alternative is ever-more-grim accounts of a sputtering economy.

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