Shadow Government

Republicans Must Support Free Markets and Fast Track

If the Republican brand stands for anything at all, it’s a belief in free markets. Advancing free trade agreements has the added benefit of spreading that ethos beyond our borders to the benefit of global society. However, before passing a free trade agreement, congress must first pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or so called “fast ...

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If the Republican brand stands for anything at all, it’s a belief in free markets. Advancing free trade agreements has the added benefit of spreading that ethos beyond our borders to the benefit of global society.

However, before passing a free trade agreement, congress must first pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or so called “fast track,” to allow American negotiators to effectively negotiate a deal with other nations. There is no doubt that opposing TPA is tempting for some Republicans outraged by President Barack Obama’s preference for executive action over earnest negotiation in other arenas. Republicans who make the case for abandoning the party’s keystone commitment to free markets to spite a president who will be gone in under two years are doing a disservice to themselves and the GOP.

In 2013, a small group of Republican congress members sent a letter to President Obama in which they highlighted the difficulty in holding true to either the Constitution or the party’s ideals when attempting to make the case for opposing trade. While acknowledging that the “executive branch has the constitutional authority to negotiate with foreign sovereigns on behalf of our nation,” the letter attempts to paint TPA as unconstitutional, since “Article I-8 of the Constitution gives congress exclusive authority to set the terms of trade,” and gives congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” But to maintain that any branch of government has “exclusive” authority in this matter is especially hypocritical for those complaining of constitutional overreach.

Our founding fathers sought to check power, not grant it exclusively. They wanted neither the president nor congress to become a king. The only words on the front of our great national seal, after all, are e pluribus unum: out of many, one. To mischaracterize the provisions embedded within TPA as unconstitutional instead of simply being the manner in which congress exercises its constitutional power is best described as rewriting our nation’s charter, rather than interpreting it.

Members of congress may disagree with a provision of a trade agreement submitted under the provisions of TPA. They can vote no on such an agreement. Yet by opposing TPA, they deserve a portion of the blame for their failure to advance free trade and free markets. That’s because it is unreasonable to expect any other nation to present its best offer unless it knows that it will not be renegotiated by congress. The president cannot be expected to alter the offending stipulation without negotiating authority.

The more worrisome statement in the members’ letter, though, is the one idealizing that “[f]or two hundred years of our nation’s history, congress led our nation’s trade policy.” Let us not quibble that 150 years would be more accurate, since once President Franklin Roosevelt was empowered by TPA’s predecessor in 1934, every president has been granted some form of negotiating authority. What should be troubling to conservatives is that these members held up those early years as their benchmark.

From the time of the GOP’s inception as a party through the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans have bent to protectionist pressures. The party’s early platform specifically included protectionism. The Democrats were originally the champions of free trade. In 1885, Democratic President Grover Cleveland called on congress to reduce high protective tariffs. Told that he had given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted: “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?”

Cleveland lost the next election to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Harrison then hiked both trade tariffs and federal spending to record levels, and became the first president to oversee over a billion-dollar budget. He unsuccessfully fought for federal funding of education, and oversaw a massive expansion of federal power to regulate commerce and convert private property to federal lands. Harrison came into office with a unified government, and left four years later with Cleveland back in office and Democrats in control of the House and Senate.

Beginning with Richard Nixon, but more fully under Ronald Regan, the Republican Party embraced Reagan’s belief that “[o]ur goal must be a day when the free flow of trade, from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle, unites [people] … in a bond of mutually beneficial exchange.”

Reagan called on the Republican Party to champion those who seek the freedom to make the most of their own condition through individual initiative, hard work, and innovation. He opposed government efforts to tilt its largesse toward those it favors. Reagan’s Republican Party strove to break down barriers erected by those pursuing the utopia of equal outcomes, regardless of effort expended, to instead provide equal opportunity. The expansion of open markets reflected the essence of that worldview.

Regardless of your view of President Obama, restoring America to its rightful spot as a shining city on a hill requires avoiding the descent into a tit-for-tat dispute on constitutional overreach and leaving the failed ideas of Benjamin Harrison in the past. Only those who do so deserve to be called Reagan Republicans.

MANDEL NGAN / AFP

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He was previously president of the University of North Dakota, has served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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