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Whatever you think of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama should get his fast-track authority

Why yes maybe I will reduce non-tariff barriers
Why yes maybe I will reduce non-tariff barriers
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership strikes me as fairly weak (though, of course, it is hard to know for sure until a full text is available). But on the main legislative fight happening right now, I think the correct conclusion is pretty clear and TPP critics are in the wrong — the Obama administration deserves its fast-track authority, something the Clinton and Bush administrations had and something that isn't tied specifically to the details of TPP or any other trade deal.

Essentially nobody in Washington is currently willing to regard the fast track vote as anything other than a proxy vote on the merits of the underlying agreement, meaning that the two debates have gotten mushed together and blended. But the question of fast-track authority is legally and conceptually distinct from approving the TPP. It is worth analyzing separately. And since, unlike TPP, we actually know — specifically, finally, and in detail — what fast track does, it makes more sense to debate it now.

Fast-track authority is a sensible procedure

The way fast track or Trade Promotion Authority works is this: Congress grants the executive branch the authority to conduct negotiations over multilateral economic pacts with other countries. It then stipulates that any such agreements reached will be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote, rather than put through the usual legislative wringer or made to be ratified as treaties.

Unless you think there is no international economic agreement of any kind that is worth negotiating, this is a sensible process.

Treating an international agreement as an ordinary piece of legislation that goes through the committee markup and amendment process would be impossible. When the president signs a deal with fellow heads of government, he can't come back three months later and say, "Sorry, guys, Congress changed the deal."

For most countries, this isn't a huge practical issue since they're either dictatorships or parliamentary systems without a US-style separation of powers. But for an American administration to finalize a complicated economic deal, it needs fast-track authority.

Trading with foreign countries is a good idea

Critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have done an excellent job of mostly not turning the debate into a generic argument about the merits of trade, and TPP fans have often fallen down by making it seem like generic pro-trade arguments will carry the day on a specific deal with many non-trade provisions.

But when it comes to the idea of fast-track authority, the generic case for trade really is relevant.

It would be nice to get more real sugar (as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup) in American products, and to do it we would need to open our markets to Latin American sugar. It would also be nice to see US auto companies have a real practical ability to sell cars in Japan. Making it possible for Americans to buy cheaper clothing is a good idea, and the world of international trading in services has really only begun to open up.

A trade deal with Europe could be great

To take a concrete example, in parallel to the TPP talks — but slower — the United States is trying to negotiate some kind of free trade arrangement with the European Union. At this point, nobody really has any idea what these Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks will result in, but it's clearly an idea with real promise. Europe is a large and prosperous market that already shares deep cultural and diplomatic ties with the United States. It's also a continent that takes labor rights and environmental regulations at least as seriously as we do.

Of course, a US-Europe free trade deal could also have negative consequences. Wall Street would like to use it as a vehicle to undermine financial regulation. Pharmaceutical companies are always making mischief in the trade process.

But it's worth actually seeing what can be negotiated. The gains from things like letting the exact same cars that are considered safe enough to drive in Denmark be considered safe enough to drive in Detroit (and vice versa) could be really big. It would be a shame to let some generic notion that "trade deals" are bad scuttle the process before it starts.

If necessary, kill TPP when it's finished

Last but by no means least, it would be better for the country and the world for a finalized, publicized Trans-Pacific Partnership to die on Capitol Hill than for the agreement to be stillborn at the Trade Promotion Authority level.

The Obama administration has been frustratingly unwilling to take TPP opponents' arguments seriously, and both sides have invested a lot of energy in arguing process points around secrecy. A finalized, publicized trade deal that members could vote "no" on while citing specific language would send a powerful and constructive message going forward that couldn't be dismissed as ignorance or fear-mongering.