With negotiations for huge trade deals across the Atlantic and Pacific in full swing, the need to renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is a hot topic of conversation among policymakers in Washington. The granting of authority by Congress to the President of the United States to enter into trade negotiations has traditionally enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support; yet, in recent years, support for trade policy appears to have eroded. Proponents of TPA assert that the absence of such a measure eliminates any reasonable chance of seeing a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement passed. Others have argued that seeking TPA at this point would be counter-productive, as it could force negotiators to backtrack on their proposals, and might delay the implementation of any sort of agreement.
It seems unlikely that President Obama will be granted this authority in the near future, particularly given the opposition that has emerged from his own party. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, two of Mr. Obama’s most powerful Congressional Democratic allies, have expressed their opposition to TPA bill as currently written. This shift in the political landscape on free trade is stark when one looks at the Democratic voting record on Trade Promotion Authority bills since 1974. On three out of the four votes in Congress on TPA (previously known as “fast-track” authority) in 1974, 1979 and 1988, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favor of granting the authority to the sitting president. However, the most recent vote on TPA in 2002 saw a drastic swing in the Democratic outlook . From 1988 to 2002, Democratic support for TPA in the House dropped from 95 percent to 12 percent and from 93 percent to 40 percent in the Senate. It is difficult to say what exactly caused this shift in opinion, although some have attributed it to an increase in anti-globalization movements, particularly among key Democratic Party constituents. Regardless, the political winds have changed decisively, and TPA support has faltered.
In light of all of this, the question becomes: is TPA the linchpin of ongoing trade negotiations? Certainly, the existence of TPA would present considerable advantages to ongoing trade negotiations. Once an agreement is reached between the United States and European Union, for example, members of Congress will be unable to tack on amendments that might tarnish carefully negotiated provisions. Congress will be unable to filibuster said bill once it is presented, and actual ratification process will be expedited. Given that TPA typically involves a required floor vote on the legislation, the agreement will not be allowed to languish indefinitely in committee. However, there is no actual guarantee that negotiations will be any easier in the unlikely event that Mr. Obama is granted Trade Promotion Authority. The fact remains that both the proposed trade agreements with the European Union and the Asia-Pacific are complex both in the scope of issues on the table and the number of countries involved. Finding consensus among all of these competing interests is a daunting task, to say the least. By extension, if TPA is enacted at this point, ongoing negotiations may stall, as Congress will be given the authority to set negotiating objectives, which, in a divided Congress, may prove difficult. Then, of course, ultimately Congress have the power to give the agreement an up-or-down vote, leaving the proposal open to failure even if TPA is secured. With or without TPA, building consensus in Congress in support of trade policy, facilitating American exports, and fostering foreign investments in the United States should remain the top priorities of the Administration if they truly want their ambitious trade agenda to be successful.