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Ben Shapiro does a brilliant job of explaining why Congress keeps ceding its power to Obama
Jesse Richman, 6/4/2015

Shapiro's argument came in a piece at Breitbart entitled "Obama's Trade Agreement Leaks While Republicans Cower." He writes:

The idea behind fast-track authority is that the president will not feel free to negotiate, and no one will negotiate with him, if any agreement is subjected to the prospect that a negotiated agreement could be renegotiated by a third party – namely, Congress. But this is a particularly odd argument, because it assumes that the president wants to give away more than is in the United States’ interest to give away. After all, the president can use the possibility of Congressional wrangling as a leverage point in negotiations: “How can I go back to Congress with this proposal? You know they’ll simply amend it. If you give me X, however, then I can fairly assure you that we’ll get this deal done.” Congress provides a convenient and useful “bad cop” for any president hoping to negotiate an international agreement.

Unless Congress doesn’t want to play bad cop. And that’s a matter of trust that changes from time-to-time. That’s why Congress should never grant TPA – it should always provide a check on the president in terms of his power to negotiate unilaterally. The executive branch should always carry in the back of its mind the fact that the legislature has final approval over any treaty, and that Congress won’t be forced to accept a crap sandwich in which it likes some material but not other material.

Congressional Republicans, however, seem to prefer the crap sandwich approach, just as they preferred the omnibus approach to budgeting that resulted in full funding for Obamacare and Obama’s executive amnesty. By giving Obama the authority to negotiate a trade agreement unilaterally, and tying their own hands by exclusively allowing an up-or-down vote, Congress avoids culpability. They can always claim that they had no power to amend the treaty, and that they had to vote for it because it contained so much good material.

And herein lies the problem with the current structure of America’s executive-led government. Congress always has incentive to pass the buck to the executive; the executive always has the incentive to maximize its own power. TPA is just the latest example of that Congressional abdication in action, even if that abdication is in the service of a generally good cause like free trade.

Jesse has made parts of the same argument. Most recently, in a February 27 posting on this blog (Does Fast-Track lead to Better Deals, or just More Bad Deals), Jesse began:

One oft repeated argument for granting the President fast-track authority to propose a take-it-or-leave-it offer to Congress on 'trade' deals is that if the president has such authority he or she will be able to negotiate a better deal for the US. 

This is a curious argument, since a little bit of elementary logic suggests that in fact the opposite is sometimes true.  A common negotiating strategy is to play "good cop - bad cop" -- one of the negotiators is constrained by an ally in a way that prevents major concessions, but can leverage the fact that he or she is constrained to bond with the opponent in the negotiations -- "I wish I could give you a better deal, but the "bad cop" won't let me." More generally, a fundamental principle of bargaining models is that having less room to make concessions can lead you to be better off in a negotiation because if a deal is to be struck the other side will have to make most of the concessions. 

Indeed, although Fast-Track may lead to more deals taking place, the gain in the number of deals is likely to be at least partially offset by the tendency of those deals to be worse deals for the United States relative to the deals that would have been struck in the absence of Fast-Track authority. 

Jesse continued the argument by discussing it in terms of a one-dimensional model, based upon game theory.  

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  • [An] extensive argument for balanced trade, and a program to achieve balanced trade is presented in Trading Away Our Future, by Raymond Richman, Howard Richman and Jesse Richman. “A minimum standard for ensuring that trade does benefit all is that trade should be relatively in balance.” [Balanced Trade entry]

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  • [Trading Away Our Future] Examines the costs and benefits of U.S. trade and tax policies. Discusses why trade deficits matter; root of the trade deficit; the “ostrich” and “eagles” attitudes; how to balance trade; taxation of capital gains; the real estate tax; the corporate income tax; solving the low savings problem; how to protect one’s assets; and a program for a strong America....

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  • In Trading Away Our Future   Richman ... advocates the immediate adoption of a set of public policy proposal designed to reduce the trade deficit and increase domestic savings.... the set of public policy proposals is a wake-up call... [February 17, 2009 review by T.H. Cate]