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Legislation to Expedite Consideration of Trade Agreements Gaining Momentum

Friday, January 30, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

The combination of a Republican-controlled Congress and the approaching conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations has many observers expecting that lawmakers will introduce, consider and vote on trade promotion authority legislation within the next few months. According to press sources, TPA bills could be introduced in the House and Senate by the end of February. However, it is generally believed that the process of moving TPA through the two chambers and, assuming it passes both, to the president’s desk will take a number of months.

TPA would give the House and Senate a fairly short timeframe within which to approve or reject, with no amendments, legislation implementing free trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch such as the TPP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In return, the bill would specify congressional objectives for trade agreement negotiations that the White House would be expected to honor. TPA is widely seen as critical for concluding TPP and TTIP because, as U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman has said, “our trading partners want to know that when they give us that final concession … that’s the agreement that will be voted on.”

Supporters of TPA have been more upbeat about its prospects than at any time in recent memory. After a year of virtually no action, Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees have been actively working together to produce a bill that would be acceptable to both parties. Campaigns to sway legislators have ramped up, with backers asserting that since the last grant of TPA expired in 2007 the U.S. has fallen behind foreign competitors that have negotiated their own trade agreements. Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has stated that TPA empowers Congress to set negotiating priorities on issues important to the U.S. economy, fosters transparency by requiring the White House to consult with lawmakers whenever requested, and retains for Congress the ultimate decision as to whether or not to implement a trade agreement.

Perhaps most significantly, the Obama administration itself has elevated TPP to a top priority. President Obama called on “both parties to give me trade promotion authority” in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address. USTR Froman subsequently told lawmakers this week that virtually the entire Cabinet has been enlisted in the effort to secure passage of TPA legislation, particularly by reaching out to those Democrats seen as most likely to approve it. Observers expect most Republicans to vote in favor of TPA, though there are some who may not due to objections to the principle of giving the president additional authority or opposition to Obama in particular.

On the other hand, opponents of TPA are intensifying their efforts as well. Some members of Congress are circulating among their colleagues letters claiming that TPA would strip Congress of its constitutional right to regulate international trade. Another frequent argument is that TPP and TTIP have been negotiated in secrecy and contain provisions that will benefit big businesses over the public interest and that approving TPA would essentially signal congressional approval of these methods. Others object to TPA because they worry that the FTAs whose enactment it is expected to facilitate will result in the emigration of additional U.S. jobs, a further decline in the domestic manufacturing base, and an erosion of U.S. labor, public health, environmental and other standards. Instead, they say, TPA should be replaced with a new system that gives Congress a role in choosing trade agreement partners, makes negotiating texts publicly available, and requires Congress to certify that its objectives have been met before trade negotiations are concluded.

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