Fast Track and the Declining Consensus About Growth

After much effort, Congress has passed and President Obama has signed Trade Promotion Authority legislation, better, if inaccurately, known as “fast-track.”  In a nutshell, fast-track is a legislative device to allow Congress to consider and vote on trade agreements without amending the deal after the fact.  Over the last few months, American Business Conference executives have been arguing in favor of this legislation and are of course pleased that it ultimately was adopted.  Since at least the days of the Canadian-US Free Trade Agreement during the Reagan years, ABC has strongly advocated fast-track as the means to capture the growth and job-creating possibilities inherent in international trade and investment agreements.

What made this battle different from previous ones is the nature of the opposition.  Of course the usual suspects, organized labor, religious groups, environmentalists, public interest coalitions, and one-world, anti-growth hipsters led the charge against fast-track.

What was new was the presence of conservative Republicans in opposition.

That many of the Republican members of Congress could be against fast-track illustrates, at least in part, the low level of confidence even some Republicans now have in American business.  Put simply, they, along with their unlikely union allies, do not believe that more open international trade and investment will yield growth benefits that will ultimately accrue to the American people.  The notion that the economy and government are scams that reward only C-Suite types is an intellectual drag on the economy that affects all business and workers.

The possibility and even the desirability of economic growth are no longer taken for granted.  For this reason, fast-track just barely squeaked through Congress.    In short, the crisis in trade policy is really the crisis in growth policy.

We are in the midst of history’s slowest recovery from recession, with first-quarter gross domestic product limping along at an annualized rate of 0.2 percent.  To the extent that Washington can do anything about this, it hasn’t.  Tax reform is dead in the water, the entitlement-driven debt overhang, as the CBO recently pointed out, is worsening, infrastructure improvements are languishing, and the regulatory burden of such things as Dodd-Frank continues.  Without the unifying concept of growth and what it can do for society these problems will persist.