Despite demonstrable benefits, free-trade agreements are controversial. But ideally the debate would be centered on the details of the proposed pact — not the negotiating tool being used to strike the best deal possible.

With that in mind, Congress should grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, or so-called "fast-track" status), which nearly every postwar president has received.

TPA is needed because no foreign leaders will take the domestic political risks necessary to ink an international trade pact if they perceive that beyond Obama they then have to negotiate with 535 members of Congress. These political risks usually involve reducing barriers to global goods and services, which can anger domestic protectionist constituencies. Only if foreign governments know that a free-trade agreement will get an eventual up-or-down vote in Congress will they make the necessary concessions.

TPA is needed to complete two trade pacts: The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), which would link the United States with the European Union.

Passing TPA "is absolutely necessary for TPP partners to conclude successfully the agreement," Haruhiko Kuroda, the governor of the Bank of Japan, told an editorial writer before an April 19 event at the Economic Club of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Among the stringent conditions on labor standards, human trafficking, currency manipulation and other key issues in separate TPA bills approved this week by key House and Senate committees, the proposed TPA legislation states that the president must give Congress a 90-day notice that he intends to sign a pact and that 60 days before the signing, the text must be made public. This belies opponents' mischaracterization of free-trade accords as somehow secretive.

There would be ample time for analysis of an agreement with significant economic and foreign policy implications. Secretary of State John Kerry made the linkage quite clear on Thursday when he said: "If we retreat on trade, our influence on the global economy will diminish. And if our economic stature is in doubt, our ability to deliver on defense and political challenges will be increasingly questioned. In our era, the economic and security realms are absolutely integrated; we simply can't pull back from one without diminishing our role on the other."

This link has direct implications in Europe, which could use a boost as it contends with sclerotic economies and Russian revanchism, and in Asia, which is still looking for a concrete example of Obama's "pivot" to the region. TPA passage might also spur Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visits Washington next week, to complete a deal.

The trade debate won't stop with passage of TPA. But not passing fast-track could mean passing on increased global trade with the 95 percent of consumers living in other countries. That's a debate worth having. Congress should grant the president Trade Promotion Authority.