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Congressional Opposition to Trade Promotion Authority Grows

Thursday, November 14, 2013
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

As the Obama administration works to wrap up one regional free trade agreement and kick another one into gear, it is facing increasing opposition to a tool many see as essential to getting those deals through Congress. Over the past week Republicans and Democrats from across the political spectrum have registered their concern about trade promotion authority (also known as “fast track”), which prohibits congressional amendments to legislation implementing FTAs and specifies a strict timeframe for such bills to be considered and then voted on. Supporters say TPA is needed to ensure that the final terms of an agreement will not be altered by Congress and thus give partner countries the confidence to make politically difficult concessions. Opponents see TPA as circumventing Congress’ constitutional authority over trade policy, which they find particularly troubling given what they see as a lack of transparency in the ongoing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

In a Nov. 12 letter to President Obama, 23 Republican members of the House of Representatives railed against TPA as an unconstitutional infringement of Congress’ “exclusive authority to set the terms of trade.” These representatives characterized themselves as “strong supporters of American trade expansion” and said many of them have supported FTAs in the past. They took issue with the limited role TPA gives Congress in negotiating FTAs and writing, debating and enacting the legislation that implements them and asserted that “hundreds of U.S. trade agreements” have been implemented without TPA. Given these concerns, they said they “do not agree” to the president’s request for TPA, which at this point has only been made informally.

More than 150 House Democrats, including many who are generally supportive of trade liberalization, sent the president a letter expressing similar sentiments the same day. These lawmakers said they “remain deeply troubled by the continued lack of adequate congressional consultation in many areas of the proposed [TPP] that deeply implicate Congress’ constitutional and domestic policy authorities.” In light of this concern, as well as the broad scope of the TPP and TTIP, “we will oppose ‘Fast Track’ Trade Promotion Authority or any other mechanism delegating Congress’ constitutional authority over trade policy that continues to exclude us from having a meaningful role in the formative stages of trade agreements and throughout negotiating and approval processes.” TPA as it has existed in the past “is simply not appropriate for 21st century agreements,” the letter concluded, “and must be replaced.”

A more conciliatory tone was evident in a Nov. 8 letter from 12 other House Democrats, who told the president that any new TPA bill “cannot just be an extension of earlier trade promotion authorities” and instead “must reflect the changing nature of international trade and ensure that Congress plays a more meaningful role in the negotiating process.” They asserted that TPA should include incentives to help keep and create jobs in the U.S. and spur new innovation, reauthorize Trade Adjustment Assistance programs to help workers adversely affected by trade, and strengthen trade enforcement laws. They added that a 2007 agreement between Congress and the White House that “incorporated significant improvements in labor and environmental commitments into previous agreements should serve as a baseline for future agreements.”

On the other hand, key congressional leaders have come out in support of TPA. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said Nov. 13 that TPA is “critical to concluding a robust and comprehensive TPP” and that “we simply cannot get the high standard, job-creating agreements that we need without TPA.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., added recently that “the best way” for Congress to be “a full partner” in the development and execution of the U.S. trade agenda is to pass TPA “and to do it soon.” Earlier this month a bipartisan group of House members formed a coalition in support of TPP that will push for Congress to act quickly on TPA.

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