February 6, 2015
The passage of trade promotion authority legislation in the US Congress is critical for the administration to bring the best trade deals to Congress, a senior US official said on February 5.

US President Barack Obama has taken the lead in an effort to promote his trade agenda in Congress and win trade promotion authority (TPA).

“Getting TPA passed… is going to be critical to allow our negotiators to bring the best deal to Congress for a vote and maximize the chances of success,” Stefan Selig, Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade in the US Department of Commerce, said at a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council.

TPA is key to negotiating two important free-trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes the US and 11 other countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which includes the US and the European Union.

“Negotiating bilateral deals are tough, but when you have 11 parties that you are trying to negotiate with it is extraordinarily difficult,” said Selig. He equated such negotiations to trying to put “socks on an octopus.”

“It is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor, but I think we are nearing the end game,” he added.

TPA would allow the president to submit trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes without amendments. Some Democrats as well as some Republicans have been reluctant to grant the president this fast-track authority.

Obama has taken the lead in trying to win congressional support for TPA, and earlier this week met with Democrats to discuss the issue.

“The administration, and the president, is all in on this topic,” Selig said in the panel discussion moderated by Jason Marczak, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Selig is part of the administration’s team that has been briefing members of Congress on the president’s trade agenda. He said substantial progress has been made, but some tough issues remain.

“The toughest issues to negotiate are saved for the end, and that’s where we are,” he said.

Shawn Donnan, World Trade Editor at the Financial Times, said the full-court press by the Obama administration and the passage of TPA are key to a breakthrough on the TPP, which he described as imminent.

“Everyone is clearly focused on getting this done in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Chile is one of the countries involved in the TPP negotiations. The others are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam.

Chile’s Ambassador to the US, Juan Gabriel Valdés, said that there would be no TPP agreement without Congress first approving a TPA.

“This is critical, not only to us, but also to other partners in the negotiation,” he said.

“Trade agreements succeed when the sensibilities of the partners are taken into consideration,” said Valdés, adding that his government has undertaken an effort to persuade Chilean businesses that this agreement would benefit the Chilean economy and help integrate Latin American partners that are working together.

The panelists noted the benefits of free trade, both in increasing exports as well as building local economies.

Countries that are more open to trade perform better, and the TPP will benefit small businesses that want to access these markets, said Ralph Carter, Managing Director for Trade and International Affairs at FedEx.

Selig noted that trade with countries with which the US has free trade agreements is growing rapidly and that growth in these markets has been dramatically higher than in non-FTA markets.

The TPP will be “a best-in-class trade agreement,” said Selig.

“As they say in the Department of Commerce, ‘This is not my grandfather’s Chevrolet trade agreement.’ These are really the most modern updated trade agreements that are set for the 21st century,” he added.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

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