Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on two bills that would profoundly affect the Obama administration’s ability to move ahead with negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with limited legislative interference. The House voted on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, a topic I covered earlier after the Senate Finance Committee introduced it) and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) separately. The former passed (219 yeas, 211 nays) while the latter failed (126 yeas, 302 nays). The implications of this result are generally negative for the administration and considerably lower the chances of the president successfully gaining trade promotion authority in time to wrap up TPP negotiations before his time in office is up.
After Friday’s votes, headlines across the U.S. media emphasized the extent to which the Obama administration was handed a major defeat on trade—the New York Times headline read “House Rejects Trade Measure,” the Washington Post noted that “House Democrats rebuff Obama on trade,” and Vox ran a headline noting that “Barack Obama just had his worst day in Congress.” But wait! As I said, Trade Promotion Authority—the legislation that would allow the president to negotiate a TPP and present it “as is” to Congress, without an opportunity for legislative amendments—passed. Why then was Friday’s outcome such a setback for the administration?
The answer to this has to do with how the Senate voted on TPA and how the House considered the same issue. The Senate voted through TPA and TAA as part of a single package. The House, however, voted on the measures separately. TPA did pass, but it won’t go to Obama’s desk to be signed into law without TAA’s passage. TPA and TAA are split along partisan lines as well. Republicans overwhelmingly support TPA while Democrats, concerned about the TPP’s negative distortionary effects on American workers, are against it. That TPA passed should thus be somewhat unsurprising given Republican control over the House.
TAA, meanwhile, has been described as a “consolation prize” of sorts for Democrats. In broad strokes, what TAA does is offer government assistance to workers displaced by future U.S. trade agreements, including the TPP. For Democrats and American labor interests, extending trade adjustment provisions was intended to sweeten the perceived poison of the TPP. With TAA wrapped into the Senate’s TPA bill, pro-trade Republicans were able to avoid a filibuster—the resulting procedural vote came down to a slim 62-38 victory. On Friday, however, TAA failed miserably. 302 representatives voted against it. Republicans had always thought the TAA was unnecessary, but why would Democrats overwhelmingly vote down legislation that they supported?
The answer to that question lies in the simple procedural issue that without both TPA and TAA passing the House as they did in the Senate, nothing ends up on Obama’s desk to be signed into law. Basically, because Democrats knew passing TAA would end up abetting the administration’s bid to acquire “fast track” trade promotion authority and eventually ease negotiations on the TPP, they voted against TAA.
The politicking doesn’t end with the Democrats voting down a measure they, in principle, supported. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who is in favor of granting the administration “fast track” authority, thought he’d made the right call when he decided to split the question and vote on TAA and TPA separately (with the TAA vote occurring first, anticipating that it would pass). He misjudged the situation and was outmaneuvered by House Democrats who managed to kill TAA. That TPA passed was little consolation for the administration and pro-trade Republicans.
The administration has a few options. In the aftermath of TAA’s failure, Boehner motioned for a reconsideration of the vote, meaning the House will vote on the question of TAA again. It is unlikely that revote will lead to a passage of TAA. The administration and House Republicans would somehow need to convince approximately three times as many Democrats to vote in favor of the measure, knowing that by doing so they would effectively be granting the TPP negotiation process a major boost. Getting Republicans to back TAA isn’t a serious option for either Boehner or the president. Assuming the revote on TAA fails, the administration has the option of heading back to the Senate to replicate the split measure process the House adopted. In this eventuality, the Senate would vote separately on TPA and TAA bills from the House. In the Senate, however, splitting the question almost guarantees a filibuster—that’s why the TPA procedural a few weeks ago incorporated TAA in the first place.
Basically, as long as the House and the Senate both somehow approve TPA, the administration’s negotiating position on the TPP will be improved internationally. TAA’s fate bears little relevance for negotiating with the 11 other countries in the TPP. Without TPA, however, the administration loses some credibility as Congress can amend the final agreement. With TPA, Congress will have four months to review the final TPP—in public—before voting it up or down.
The prognosis on the Obama administration’s trade agenda at this juncture is understandably poor. Friday’s headlines weren’t an exaggeration—they just didn’t quite draw out the legislative complexity of what Obama faces as he tries to gain “fast track” authority to move ahead with the TPP. The partisan inversion on the TPP issue—with Republicans backing a Democratic president who’s largely been abandoned by his own party on the trade agenda—is more than a political curiosity; it’s proving to be a real obstacle to a final agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.