Ending months of uncertainty over the future of the economic leg of the U.S. rebalance to Asia, U.S. congressional leaders agreed on Thursday evening to open the way for President Barack Obama to take the lead on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on a “fast track.” The U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee introduced bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority legislation, known as the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (TPA-2015), that sets a range of constraints within which the president must pursue a final TPP agreement, but unencumbers the executive branch from any congressional interference before a final deal is reached with the assent of the 11 other nations involved in the negotiating process–a group comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, in addition to the United States. TPA-2015 will affect future U.S. administrations and sets a general set of principles for all trade negotiations carried out by the executive branch, not just the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Under TPA-2015, all future trade agreements that the United States will sign on to must adhere to strict standards on environmental protections, labor, and human rights. The last provision, according to the New York Times‘ reporting, was added as a Republican concession to satisfy the Senate Finance committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden. In the months leading up to this moment, we’ve witnessed an odd partisan alignment where Congressional Republicans have backed a Democratic president’s appeal for trade promotion authority (with the exception of some recalcitrant Republicans who, as a matter of principle, would like to yield as little authority as possible to the current administration). Liberal congressional Democrats, for the most part, have been a thorn in the administration’s side over the TPP, raising concerns about the agreement’s potential to suppress U.S. wages among other issues. As The Diplomat reported in late 2013, 151 House Democrats wrote the White House expressing their opposition to the TPP as a whole and any new TPA, sending signs that the trade agreement might be entirely politically unfeasible for the administration.
An important point worth stressing is that while the TPA will simplify the negotiation process, and increase the credibility of the United States Trade Representative and the president in their interactions with foreign leaders, Congress has reserved the capacity to have a final say in the passage of the deal. Under TPA-2015, the Obama administration would be obliged to make the final text of a TPP agreement public at least four months before Congress votes on it. (TPP negotiations have faced public and bipartisan Congressional criticism for their opaqueness.) Congress retains its power, but without TPA-2015, there would be no TPP–that much was a certainty. With this legislation, the TPP, while still a distant light at the end of a long tunnel of negotiations, remains a possibility.
The other 11 parties to the TPP negotiations will have taken note of today’s announcement and will read the development as an unambiguously positive development. Some states, such as Vietnam, may balk at the human rights provision–an odd constraint for trade negotiations. The timing of TPA-2015 will be particularly welcomed by the administration given that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit the United States later this month. Japan and the United States represent the two largest economies among the TPP group of 12 who together comprise approximately 40 percent of world GDP.
The TPP is the economic crown jewel of the United States’ Pivot–or Rebalance–to Asia. Asia-Pacific states would see a concluded agreement as a guarantee that the United States was committing itself to long-term economic integration in Asia. The U.S. defense secretary, Ashton Carter, likened the agreement’s strategic importance to that of an additional U.S. aircraft carrier. With Congress’ imprimatur in hand, Obama now needs to set out on finding an agreement that will not only satisfy Congress but the economic interests of the other 11 states negotiating the TPP. With 19 months left in office, Obama may come to terms with the harsh reality that TPA wasn’t the hardest part of getting to the finish line on the TPP after all.
Still, the TPA saga is far from over. TPA-2015 still has to gather the necessary votes to come into law.