The increasingly beleaguered Trans-Pacific Partnership might have been delivered a mortal blow last week when a large bipartisan group of Congress members came out against giving President Obama Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority.
Congressional concern over the TPP has been building for some time but it boiled over last week in two letters from members of both parties in the House of Representatives. The first letter came last Tuesday from 22 Republicans in the House of Representatives, many of them—such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)—identified with the Tea Party. In the letter, the representatives announced their opposition to giving the president Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority, which officially ended in 2007.
The following day a group of 151 of their Democratic colleagues led by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and George Miller (D-CA) wrote to the president to also express their opposition to Fast Track authority.
“We write to express our serious concern with the ongoing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement (FTA), a potential agreement of tremendous consequence for our country. Specifically, we remain deeply troubled by the continued lack of adequate congressional consultation in many areas of the proposed pact that deeply implicates Congress’ constitutional and domestic policy authorities,” the 151 Democratic members of the House of Representatives wrote in the letter.
“Given our concerns,” the letter continued, “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.”
Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) allows the president to submit trade agreements to Congress for a clean up and down vote without allowing any amendments to be introduced. This empowers the executive branch to negotiate trade agreements with foreign partners without the other nations having to worry that the U.S. Congress will add certain exceptions into the deals that they would find unacceptable.
Having a Fast Track authority was viewed as particularly crucial for negotiating the TPP given the delicate nature of negotiating a free trade agreement on numerous sectors with 11 different nations. Some fear that a Congressional added exception could potentially torpedo the entire deal.
“We’re going to need trade promotion authority through Congress,” President Obama said in September of the TPP and a similar treaty with the European Union. “And this is an area where, so far at least, Mitch McConnell says he’s for it, and that’s good. And so we may be able to get some good bipartisan support to get that done.”
The President’s Export Council agrees, writing in a September letter to the president: “We believe that new TPA is critical to renew America's trade leadership in the world and to provide important tools to negotiate, secure Congressional approval of, and implement pending and future agreements.”
The fact that 173 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives have already come out in opposition of giving the president TPA bodes ill for its future prospects. So does the fact that there are few legislative days remaining in the year. The Obama administration and its Asian partners have set the goal of concluding the agreement by the end of the year.
Congress also has a robust history of voting against giving the president TPA, having thwarted three attempts by President Bill Clinton to obtain it. George W. Bush secured TPA in 2002 with just 2 votes to spare.
The TPP is the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s so-called pivot or rebalance to Asia. It has faced a number of major setbacks in recent months, however.
First, the government shutdown in the United States forced the president to cancel a trip to Asia in October that was supposed to wrap up negotiations on the text. Then, last week, the transparency group Wikileaks leaked the working text of the intellectual property rights (IPR) part of the treaty.
In an interview with the Monkey Cage, Susan Sell, an expert on IPR at George Washington University, said the leaked text showed the U.S. and allies like Japan and Australia have “taken extreme hard-line positions” on IPR during the TPP negotiations.
“I was somewhat surprised to see how strongly other countries are pushing back against U.S. demands, especially on issues related to access to medicines, Internet Service Provider liability, damages, and copyright in digital media,” Sell added.
Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.