Political pundits have a favorite question: “Will it play in Peoria?”

Last week, President Bush demonstrated that free trade certainly can play in Peoria–or, more specifically, East Peoria, where he spoke to employees of Caterpillar.

International trade, said Bush, is “a topic of hot debate.” Then he continued: “The temptation is to say, well, trade may not be worth it, let’s isolate ourselves. Let’s protect ourselves.”

Yet the protectionist temptation makes no sense for the blue-collar workers who build world-famous Cat equipment. Half of their products are sold overseas.

It makes no sense for the rest of the economy, either. Exports account for 11 percent of the U.S. economy, reported Bush. For every six manufacturing jobs, one of them depends upon foreign markets.

That’s why the president called for Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA–an indispensable negotiating tool that allows the United States to gain access to additional markets, but which also is set to expire this summer.

The TPA concept is simple: It allows Congress to approve or reject trade agreements but not to amend them. This is critical because it preserves the authority of Congress to express its views on trade but not to kill a good pact that expands exports but might have a negative impact on a few workers or a business in their district.

In the absence of TPA, other countries don’t find themselves negotiating trade deals with a single entity–the team of trade officials who represent the United States–but with 535 members of Congress. It’s an impossible situation, and the reality is that when there’s no TPA, the United States essentially doesn’t engage in trade talks at all because other nations won’t waste their time talking to us.

TPA’s expiration hardly could come at a worse time. The World Trade Organization’s Doha round is finally showing some flickers of life. Even if these discussions were to gain steam and head directly toward a consensus that knocks down barriers to prosperity, however, it’s extremely unlikely that they could be completed before the TPA deadline.

Ideally, Congress should make TPA permanent. Our economy depends upon exports too much for anything else. Farmers understand this almost as much as Caterpillar workers: Approximately one-third of everything we grow is sent to consumers in other countries.

Make no mistake: Trade Promotion Authority is a friend of the American farmer.

Unfortunately, the fact that it’s merely temporary makes it vulnerable to the toxic partisanship of Washington’s political fever swamp. During the 1990s, members of the Republican Congress let TPA lapse because they didn’t want to give President Clinton a political victory. Today, the situation is reversed, with a Congress controlled by Democrats threatening to hold out against a Republican president.

This serves the interests of precisely nobody, except perhaps the political ideologues, talking heads, and consultants who profit from partisan conflict.

I know it doesn’t help me, an Iowa farmer. If I’m going to send the hogs I raise to developing countries with rising incomes–i.e., an increasing amount of money to spend on higher protein diets–then I need to have access to those consumers. I recognize that I’ll have plenty of competition from, for instance, Danish hams. But that’s okay because I have confidence in what I produce and I know that economic competition is good for consumers everywhere.

The bottom line is that U.S. trade officials need to preserve existing opportunities and create new ones–and they’ll have a tough time if there’s no TPA.

Much has been made about how congressional elections last November have darkened the outlook for free trade. There’s some truth in that, but perhaps less than meets the eye. A recent Pew Research poll revealed that 44 percent of Americans believe that “free-trade agreements like NAFTA” have been a “good thing” for the United States, compared to 35 percent who think they’re a “bad thing.” Two years ago, the same question turned up similar numbers.

What’s more, several Democratic leaders have suggested that perhaps there’s a deal to be made on TPA: everything from passing a temporary extension that covers only the WTO to assembling assistance packages for certain displaced workers.

On free trade, I’m a purist: Congress should approve TPA permanently, with no strings attached. But I also know that the perfect should never become the enemy of the good, and the allies of free trade will need to think both creatively and pragmatically to defend one of the keys to our economic prosperity.

That’s a message that ought to play in Peoria.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org