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Why Fast Track Isn’t Free Trade

As early as the end of this week, the House of Representatives could vote to approve “fast track” authority for President Obama’s massive new trade deals. The Senate narrowly passed “fast track”—now known as “Trade Promotion Authority”—last month, and its full passage now awaits only the House’s decision.

Fast track commits Congress to an up-or-down vote on whatever the president’s trade negotiators deliver, without the possibility of filibuster in the Senate or further amendments. It thus streamlines and expedites the process of Congressional approval: under fast track, trade deals get special treatment unavailable to other kinds of legislation. And without fast track, it is unlikely that President Obama will be able to pass two controversial trade agreements with our Asian and European allies and competitors.

Fast track approval in the House now hinges crucially on Republican votes because most Democrats are bucking their president to vote against his trade agenda. But why are so many conservatives willing to trust the Obama administration on this issue, while otherwise trying to thwart it at every turn?

Conservatives are caught between their general support for “free trade” and a concern to uphold American national sovereignty. The support for free trade doesn’t just come from a general pro-business orientation; it reflects an older idea that trade unencumbered by government regulation is not only good for business, but good for individuals and for society as a whole, continuous with rights of property and liberty generally.

But today’s trade agreements aren’t really about free trade, at least not as traditionally understood. They are efforts to achieve regulatory harmonization across borders, initiatives in what is now called “global governance.” They don’t keep the state out of the marketplace so much as bring it in, on selective terms, to favor powerful corporate interests at the expense of national sovereignty.

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