Friday, March 23, 2007

Fast-tracking on a slippery slope

No, we're not going to ask again about where the bills are to fast-track oil pipelines and other traditional energy development projects in Montana.

Montana Headlines is rather going to speak briefly to the recent pair of guest opinions in the Billings Gazette about "fast track" trade promotion authority and the effect it has on Montana.

We were gratified to hear voices from the left citing a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution in support of their opposition to renewing Presidential fast-track trade authority. As was correctly pointed out in the editorial, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that "The Congress shall have Power... To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations."

We were waiting for them to find emanations from the penumbras in that clause, but they never came -- good for them. Given that the "among the several states" part of the Commerce Clause has been so grossly abused in the usurpation of state authority by the federal government, it has never been a favorite of conservatives -- but its citation in this matter is appropriate.

We're not as sure as they are that fast-track authority is unconstitutional -- after all, what happens in fast-tracking is that Congress gives the negotiation authority to the executive branch, while maintaining its power to authorize or turn down any agreement negotiated.

But we fully agree that Congress should not delegate this matter to the executive branch. The steady encroachment upon the authority of the legislative branch of the federal government by both the executive and the judiciary is bad enough without Congress willingly, even eagerly, giving its authority away.

On the other side of the fence, proponents of fast-tracking state that fast-track authority benefits Montana agriculture. They correctly point out that trade requires trade agreements, and that trade agreements are hard to come by when a foreign country knows that Congress can rewrite the negotiated agreement.

But this is not an argument for Congress to give up its authority -- it is an argument for putting Congress front-and-center in trade negotiations, and holding it accountable for the outcome. The reason fast-tracking exists is ultimately not because President Richard Nixon "masterminded" it (in the semi-conspiratorial language of the "con" editorial.) The reason that it exists is that Congress didn't have the discipline to do its job on trade, and thus most members gladly gave that hard part of their job to the executive branch.

Our own sense is that we agree that fast-track authority results in trade agreements that do not take sufficiently seriously the impact that a given trade agreement will have on an individual state or a critical industry. We reject the ideological assertion that untrammeled free-trade policies always result in a better outcome for America. We certainly believe that Montana Republicans would make a grave error if they ceded our traditional role as the advocates of farmers and small-business owners to Democrats in the name of free-trade theories.

As such, we were glad to see that the recent Montana senate resolution against fast-track authority was supported by Republicans no less than by Democrats.

The authors of the "pro" editorial call on our Congressional delegation to "protect Montana's agriculture and overall state's interests by supporting the ability to negotiate and conclude trade agreements that are good for Montanans."

This is quite a leap, though, since it assumes that the best thing that our Congressional delegation can do for Montana is to give the negotiation of such trade agreements to the executive branch rather than engaging in the negotiations and decisions of those trade agreements themselves.

We basically like President Bush, in spite of his all-too-human flaws -- and regular readers of Montana Headlines know that we aren't particularly enthusiastic about our two Democratic U.S. Senators. But somehow we still think that Montana agriculture would come out better in a deal negotiated by the latter than in one by the former.


mtliberty said...

I think there's more going on here than meets the eye.

It appears that power is more of interest to the proponents than the actual substantive debate.

Montana Headlines said...

Yes, part of the agenda is certainly pressuring Baucus to be more of a liberal yes-man than he already is (his whopping ACU rating of 24 shows what a reactionary conservative he is.)

The more liberals have at Baucus the better. A smart Republican could easily outflank Baucus on populist grounds. And keep in mind that most liberals are too doctrinaire to be very effectively populist, so the more liberals pressure Baucus, the more they will cause him to lose credibility with both Democrats and Republicans in Montana.

I do think that fast-track is one of those things, like his obvious love for big corporations, where he is choosing some of the wrong recent Republican policies to ape.

Close scrutiny of trade agreements and application of tariffs where necessary was once a bedrock Republican/populist stance.

With all due respect to the Club for Growth, which I support, there are some things worth protecting economically.