As a member of North Dakota’s state legislature, I take my constitutional duties seriously. Serving in office requires me to take an oath: I solemnly swear to support the U.S. Constitution, as well as my state’s constitution.
I’ve spoken these words five times—most recently about two months ago, as we prepared to begin our 2015 legislative session in Bismarck.
The Constitution is never far from my mind. I think about it constantly, as we go about drafting bills and voting on laws. I keep it close in a literal sense as well: There’s a copy in my nightstand drawer.
I’m sure that many members of Congress are the same way. That’s why I’m confident a majority of them will support legislation to grant Trade Promotion Authority to President Obama.
I understand why a few have expressed doubts about TPA. Although most support the expansion of global trade, they worry about the way President Obama has abused his constitutional authority, issuing executive orders that deny Congress a voice on key matters of law and policy.
The Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution that is defined by a separation of powers, to make sure that no branch of government would grow too strong. And so Congress must do everything it can to resist a White House that has overstepped its constitutional bounds on a wide range of issues, including immigration, health care, and welfare.
Yet opposing TPA is the wrong way to go about it.
First and foremost, it would hurt our economy. In 2014, the United States exported more than $2.3 trillion in goods and services, an all-time high. These sales support millions of high-paying jobs—and just about every economist who studies global trade thinks that we can do even better with new trade agreements.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman and former vice-presidential candidate, recently pointed out that a generation ago, trade supported about one of every ten jobs in the United States. Today, the rate is one in five.
Even North Dakota, a landlocked state in the middle of a continent, depends on exports. Much of what we grow on our farms and build in our factories goes abroad, in search of customers in foreign countries. These sales bring back more than $5 billion to our state each year, keeping roughly 20,000 people employed.
Most of these goods and services go to Canada and the other nations of the Pacific Rim—and our trade diplomats are close to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade agreement that will make it easier for our products to cross these same borders.
What’s more, TPA does not grant the president any authority that he does not already possess. Instead, it simply affirms the role of Congress in the negotiation of free-trade agreements. TPA says that when the president submits trade proposals to Congress, lawmakers will consider each one with an up-or-down vote.
If the president were determined to abuse his authority on trade, after all, he would simply put trade deals into effect without consulting Congress. TPA explicitly requires him to seek congressional approval.
This approach strengthens the hand of our trade diplomats because it signals to other countries that we’re serious about entering agreements. TPA places only a single limit on Congress by stopping protectionists from offering poison-pill amendments written by labor-union lobbyists.
In other words, Congress can say “yea” or “nea” to trade agreements, but it can’t say “maybe.” Lawmakers enjoy the last word—and they must deliver a last word on completed agreements, rather than delay votes or ignore agreements altogether. If TPA forces them to do anything, it merely forces them to meet their obligations as lawmakers.
One of Obama’s toughest critics in Congress is Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs a key oversight committee. “This president has earned our distrust,” he told the Washington Post last month. “But having said that, I still support TPA.”
I share this skepticism of the current administration—but no legislator should let partisanship get in the way of his obligation to do what’s right.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).