Monday, May 18, 2015

President Obama Overreaching on Trade

Throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Government grabbed more and more power from the governments of the member-states. Even within the U.S. Government, presidents have tended to over-reach. Specifically, they have put their role in proposing legislation and treaties above their role as that government’s chief executive in enforcing existing laws. In May 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued a report whose thesis is that presidents of both parties had failed to enforce the labor-provisions in the existing trade treaties. That the current president, Barak Obama, was in the midst of negotiating yet another trade treaty said to have labor provisions included opens him up to the charge of over-reaching. That is to say, rather than focusing first on enforcing existing trade arrangements to which the U.S. was then a party, he was going beyond—that is, over-reaching—to negotiate yet another deal. Such over-reaching is akin to going beyond the negative legislative power in vetoing legislation to spend a lot of time proposing legislation at the expense of devoting time to running the executive branch as its chief executive and conferring with members of Congress on ways to improve the administration of existing law. In this essay, I use Warren’s report as a means into answering why the overreaching habit has become so ubiquitous among American presidents that the electorate barely recognizes it as such.

Citing analyses from the Government Accountability Office, the State Department, and the Department of Labor, Warren’s report claims that the U.S. Government “does not enforce the labor protections in its trade agreements.”[1] Eleven countries in which the U.S. had trade treaties with had “documented reliance on child labor, forced labor or other human rights abuses related to labor.”[2] After the Obama administration finalized a labor action-plan with Colombia in 2011—a deal Obama called a “win-win for workers”—105 union activist were murdered as of May 2015.[3] Given the opportunity cost of the foregone benefits of alternatives not pursued in taking a course of action such as negotiating another trade deal, Barak Obama’s decision to pursue a Pacific trade treaty put him on a course that did not make enforcement of existing trade treaties a priority. This is a bit like going out shopping to get more stuff rather than spending Sunday cleaning out the messy garage. That is to say, the mentality is the same; and yet, how often is it applied to a U.S. president? Moreover, what is behind it?

The way in which U.S. presidents are selected—by which I mean the process—may give us a clue. At the nominating stage, the emphasis is on campaigning by proposing and selling policies. “If elected, I will create an X,” for example. “If elected, I will push Congress to enact Y.” While such an approach is consistent with leadership, the emphasis comes at the expense of administration. Rarely do presidential candidates say, for example, “If elected, I will enforce Z.” That’s boring to an electorate used to getting flashy new things. Additionally, the nominating contests prize political games rather than administrative experience. For example, a candidate who has an innate ability to use media to sell himself and trash the other candidates is not necessarily the candidate who would be good at enforcing law by administrative means.

This is not to say that U.S. presidents should have a M.B.A. as a prerequisite. George W. Bush had one from Harvard, and yet he essentially delegated the office’s administrative functions to the cabinet secretaries. Rather, the selection process itself could be designed differently such that people oriented to the chief-executive role more so than proposing new legislation (i.e., a legislative role) would tend to come out on top. Rather than being driven by a desire to put his or her ideological stamp on society through new legislation—this being the cause of the overreach—the ideal candidate would be oriented to protecting the viability of the system of public governance itself should it suffer from a systemic fault-line or extant threat—and otherwise be most interested in administering the government machinery—seeing that the existing laws and treaties are enforced. It would not be as if this task could be done by next Tuesday after which there would be plenty of time to join Congress in its legislative role. Indeed, for the separation-of-powers to work in the U.S. Government, a president’s legislative role should be limited to the negative one exercised by the presidential veto.

In short, just as the federal government itself has encroached on the constitutional prerogatives of the governments of the member-states, U.S. presidents have encroached on the Congress’s legislative role by going beyond their negative legislative role. Even within the bundle of presidential powers, spending time negotiating more trade deals before making sure that the existing treaties are fully enforced evinces an overreaching. The greed of power lies behind the over-reaching itself. Behind the greed is a malignant narcissism that seeks to reimage the world in the ego’s own image. As an alternative mentality, imagine a person who gets more excited about getting a system—in this case, the federal executive branch—to work properly, which includes not only working well, but also producing a lot of output. Applied to the executive branch, this would mean an orientation to (and satisfaction from) overseeing the government agencies and pushing them to enforce existing laws, including the treaties on trade. For such a mentality to “gets its due,” the selection process, the office itself, and even the values of the electorate would need to change. By the latter, I don’t mean that the electorate itself would have to value administrative functions; rather, enough Americans would have to agree to buffer the presidency from their own desire to be titillated and amused by “presidential contests” and snazzy presidential proposals. This is in part why the delegates at the Constitutional Convention invented the severely-flawed Electoral College; there was to be a check—the limited electors at the state level—on the passions of the citizenry in the selection of the U.S. president.  

[1] Zach Carter, “Elizabeth Warren Details Obama’s Broken Trade Promises,” The Huffington Post, May 18, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.