The forum hardly could have been more ideal. Scheduled by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, it was supposed to focus on foreign policy–and it did, but not before an extended discussion about the financial crisis.
The last-minute switch of topics was appropriate given the magnitude of the meltdown on Wall Street. Americans deserve to know, in detail, what John McCain and Barack Obama think about the problem and how they would propose to handle it.
So those were the issues: economics and foreign policy. International trade is a perfect blend of the two. Yet it didn’t come up at all.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Obama uttered the word “trade” twice, once in reference to Afghanistan’s poppies (which are used to make opium) and again in reference to Iran’s ties to China and Russia. McCain didn’t use the word at all. Nor did he mention the problem of protectionism–a subject that he’s quite comfortable discussing.
Granted, there was a lot to discuss and only a limited amount of time. Even so, trade is an extremely important topic. So far this year, a surge in U.S. exports is the only thing that has kept our country from meeting the most common definition of a recession (back-to-back quarters of negative growth).
We may be headed for a recession, and possibly a bad one. But think about it: The only reason we aren’t in one already is not because of a vigorous economy here at home, but instead because of our ability to sell American-made goods and services to foreign customers.
The next president must see trade as a fundamental part of any economic recovery plan. Unfortunately, no president can do this without Trade Promotion Authority, which Congress allowed to expire last year.
That’s one issue upon which McCain and Obama should be able to agree: the next president must have TPA. Both candidates ought to pledge that no matter who wins on Election Day, the loser will return to the Senate and cross party lines to support the next president’s request for this vital power.
In its essentials, TPA allows potential trade deals to have up-or-down votes before Congress. As a practical matter, our government can’t negotiate any deals to remove foreign tariffs without it.
Both candidates have made efforts to show their bipartisan credentials. In the debate last week, McCain called himself “a maverick” and Obama boasted about his legislative work with Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican. By promising to work together on TPA, the rivals would go a long way toward proving their credentials.
One of TPA’s problems may be its lousy name, which smacks of both tourist-board boosterism and government-run industrial policy. So I propose that we rechristen TPA with a new name that is more in keeping with what it actually seeks to accomplish.
In the future, all prospective trade deals negotiated by our government for the benefit of Americans should be subjected to the “Free Trade Fair Vote,” or FTFV.
When an administration concludes a trade accord with another country, the arrangement should go before Congress under the provisions of FTFV. That way, important economic policies can receive the debate and deliberation they need without as much of the partisan bickering and legislative trickery. That’s both putting “Country First” (a McCain slogan) and a “Change We Can Believe In” (an Obama refrain).
Under FTFV, Congress would have the authority to reject a proposed trade agreement. That’s important, because Congress has the right to have a voice in forming U.S. trade policy.
Yet politicians shouldn’t be able to dodge their legislatives responsibilities. They should have to vote yes or no. We expect our leaders to make tough choices rather than duck for cover. FTFV enables them to do the former; its absence guarantees the latter.
Over the next four and a half weeks, McCain and Obama will have ample time to discuss trade policy in their two remaining debates as well as on the campaign trail.
So let’s encourage them to do that–and also to go on the record about their support for the Free Trade Fair Vote.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org