President Obama’s effort to secure the same Trade Promotion Authority that has been delivered in one form or another to every president since FDR went down in flames on Friday, and the president’s erstwhile ally, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) lit the match, taking to the floor to denounce TPA and pledging her vote to block it.
In a convoluted legislative maneuver, the House broke up a Senate-passed bill into two parts, one of which gave the president TPA, and another that created a Trade Adjustment Assistance program for workers displaced as a result of new trade flows when trade rules are changed.
To send a bill to the President’s desk, at least in the near term, the House needed to pass both measures, and the House Republican leadership brought up the TAA portion first. This placed Democrats in a complicated position, because TAA is largely supported within the party as a necessary addition to any free trade agreement.
However, the majority of Democrats opposed giving the President TPA, because it allows him to “fast-track” fully-negotiated trade deals, bringing them to the floor of the House and Senate for up-or-down votes, with no opportunity for Congress to amend them. They claim that the deals are negotiated in secret, and that corporation and other business interests have a seat at the table while some other stakeholders, like labor and environmental groups are not well represented. (The TPA measure that was voted on actually substantially increases transparency of the negotiations, but one of the most controversial agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is already well on the way to completion.)
Knowing that the Republicans, with the support of a fraction of the Democratic Party, had the votes to pass the TPA provision, the only way for them to scuttle the deal was to withhold their support for TAA, which many Republicans opposed anyway.
Pelosi took to the floor before the vote on the Trade Adjustment Assistance portion of the bill and explained, “If TAA fails, the fast track is stuck.”
She said, “They may take up the vote, but it doesn’t go anyplace. It’s stuck in the station. And for that reason, sadly – because the Senate has sent us the bill that way, connected – sadly, because if the fast track passes we’ll need TAA. Sadly, I would vote against the TAA and I just wanted you to know where I was coming from on that.
“For these and other reasons I will be voting today to slow down the fast track to get a better deal for the American people. Bigger paychecks, better infrastructure, help the American people fulfill the American Dream.”
A few minutes later, the TAA portion of the trade package went down to overwhelming defeat, 126-302, with large majorities of both parties voting against it.
The House went forward with a vote on the TPA portion – something leadership had earlier indicated it would not do – and it passed 219-211, with only 28 Democrats joining 191 Republicans to vote in favor.
The vote represents a major rebuke to the president by his own party – Democrats in the House have essentially said that they do not trust his administration to negotiate a trade deal that would be good for the country. Obama had taken what are, for him, extraordinary steps to lobby members of Congress in person. He appeared at the annual Congressional baseball game on Thursday night, and went to Capitol Hill via motorcade on Friday morning, apparently to no avail.
House Speaker John Boehner introduced a measure that may make it possible for the House to reconsider the TAA section of the Senate bill when it returns to town on Monday, but it’s unclear what will sway lawmakers from their current positions.
The crux of the argument for and against the controversial trade legislation was posed by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), a leading proponent, and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the ranking member who opposed the approach.
“The question before us today is pretty simple,” Ryan said. “Is America going to shape the global economy? Or is it going to shape us?
Ryan made the same argument that Obama and his advisers have been making for weeks: that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live abroad, and that if the U.S. wants to cash in on fast growing foreign markets, it must lock in a favorable trade agreement with Asian-rim countries.
“In fact, one out of every five American jobs already depends on trade. And that’s a good thing,” Ryan said. “Because they pay more—18 percent more on average. But while the world has been moving full steam ahead, we’ve been standing still.
“We haven’t completed a trade agreement in years. There are now 262 FTAs in force all over the world. The U.S. is party to only 14. Since 2007 (when TPA expired), there have been more than 100 trade agreements signed. The U.S. is party to none.
“And in the global economy, if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. Because other countries are negotiating trade agreements without us. They’re tearing down barriers to their products and putting up barriers to our products.
“So the rules of the global economy are being written right now. The question is, are we going to write the rules . . . or is China? That’s why H.R. 1314, the Trade Act, would establish TPA or trade promotion authority.
Finally, Ryan argued that the fast-track legislation would provide plenty of transparency for lawmakers to study and judge the emerging trade agreement being negotiated by the U.S. and other countries. “First, [the administration must] pursue specific negotiating objectives—nearly 150 of them,” he said. “Second, you’ve got to regularly consult with Congress. Let us read the negotiating text. Give us regular briefings on the talks. Let us attend negotiating rounds. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this bill requires the President to make the text of every trade agreement public 60 days before he signs off on it.”
“The world is watching. If we don’t do this, we will send a signal to the world that America is not reliable. But if we do establish TPA, we will show the world that America is once again taking the lead.”
But Levin fired back that the problem with this TPA is that “it means no meaningful provisions whatsoever in TPP on currency manipulation, which has destroyed millions of middle class American jobs.”
“And it allows investors to challenge American health and environmental regulations – not through the American legal system, but through unregulated arbitration panels,” he added. “It is about a TPP going in the wrong direction on access to medicines and in some important ways on environmental protections.
Levin said that he and other opponents are concerned about countries like Mexico that deny their workers basic labor rights to gain an unfair competitive advantage over our companies and workers, and Vietnam and Malaysia that stand in clear violation of the May 10 provisions on worker rights – with no plans to change that.
“On this and every other area in the TPA, there are only vague negotiating objectives, left to be determined whether they were met by those who did the negotiating,” Levin said...
“Instead of passing this bill, which gives a blank check to the Administration to finish up TPP negotiations where they are now, and leaves Congress with an up-or-down vote at the end, we should be using our leverage to impact the negotiations,” he said, “ This bill doesn’t do that.”
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