Trade Promotion Authority in Danger

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade negotiation between the United States and eleven other countries, is nearing completion.  However, absent the passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), it is unlikely that the President will be able to conclude the agreement.  TPA allows for expedited Congressional consideration of trade agreements without amendments.  Without it, countries cannot know if the deal they sign will be the one Congress eventually votes on.

Ideally, TPA should have been passed before our trade negotiators had moved so far down the road with the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.  That way, very general trade negotiating objectives would have been established legislatively and the mechanism for Congressional action would have been in place.  Indeed, a bipartisan TPA bill was introduced last year, written by then Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Senator Orrin Hatch.  It never came to a vote.  Now, the President is in the difficult position of asking for trade authority after going ahead with a negotiation.

The result is a political mess.  The TPA legislation appears to some to be an after the fact endorsement of a particular negotiation – the TPP.  Since the TPP talks have been conducted behind closed doors – as such negotiations always are – the Administration has been vulnerable to charges of a lack of “transparency” and bad faith relations with Congress.  Much of this criticism is disingenuous.  Many of those complaining the loudest would not be likely to support Trade Promotion Authority in any case.

At present, there is no TPA bill.  Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and Ranking Member Ron Wyden have been unable to agree on language that, from Hatch’s point of view, does not dilute TPA’s effectiveness while, simultaneously, from Wyden’s point of view, offers at least the chance that some Democrats will vote for the bill.  This is quite a needle to thread.

It is ABC’s hope that a bill will emerge from Finance by Memorial Day.  Until then, we are in the position, when our members go to the Hill, of selling a concept rather than legislation, and that is awfully difficult to do.  Moreover, if Finance does come up with a bill, no one knows if it can pass.  A rump group of very conservative Republicans in the House are opposed to TPA because they don’t want to give the President any more power, even if it means concluding a pro-business trade negotiation via a mechanism, TPA, that has been used for the last forty years by Presidents of both parties.  These Republicans are few in number but they add weight to the very large number of Congressional Democrats who oppose market opening initiatives under almost any circumstances.  The only thing worse than not getting a TPA bill would be to get one and then see it voted down.  That is not an impossible eventuality.  It is time for proponents of more open trade get out of their defensive crouch and get to work.



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