In his May 17 column titled "Can Democrats Take Yes for an Answer?" The Washington Post's David Broder asked whether congressional Democrats will renew President Bush's trade promotion authority (TPA), which Broder wrote is the "same free hand that [Bush's] predecessors have enjoyed." But in fact, President Clinton was deprived of trade promotion authority for the majority of his time in office. The authority, which expired in 1994 during Clinton's first term, was not renewed by Congress until 2002 -- after Bush entered the White House.
The issue of trade policy -- as critical to the nation's future as Iraq and every bit as divisive -- is now squarely before the Democratic Congress. It will almost certainly provide a huge challenge to its leadership.
The stage was set by a painfully negotiated deal between the White House and Democrats, announced last week, on the terms of trade in pending agreements with Peru and Panama. Those agreements with two small nations are just the overture for a much larger debate involving tariff-cutting deals with Colombia and South Korea. And then comes the monumental question of whether to give President Bush the same free hand that his predecessors have enjoyed in negotiating global and regional trade agreements, not amendable by Congress but subject only to an up-or-down vote.
But Bush's "predecessors" have not always enjoyed trade promotion or "fast track" authority, which allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that Congress must vote up or down without the opportunity to make amendments. According to a 2003 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Congress had granted presidents with TPA "almost continuously from 1974 to [April 16] 1994. After that, the authority lapsed." The CRS noted that the Clinton administration proposed a reauthorization of fast track trade authority during the 104th and 105th congresses, but was rebuffed each time.
According to a 2006 CRS report:
Several reasons may explain the failure of the Clinton Administration and Congress to get fast track procedures re-authorized. For one, both the Republican congressional leadership and the Clinton Administration wanted fast-track authority; however, the two sides could not agree on how labor and environmental issues should be addressed in trade agreements negotiated under a new negotiating authority. Republicans wanted limited coverage while the Clinton Administration and many Democrats in Congress preferred broader coverage. In addition, the WTO failed to launch a new round of negotiations at the 1999 Ministerial meeting in Seattle, and therefore, no major trade negotiations were underway that might have made the adoption of a fast-track statute a political priority.
The Congress did not reauthorize the TPA until 2002, after Bush took office.