As the House of Representatives leadership plots the twisting route it must take to pass a controversial bill giving President Obama Trade Promotion Authority, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to cast the legislation as substantially different from the authority that’s been given, in slightly different forms, to every president back as far as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been particularly active in the effort to present the new version of TPA as substantially different from past grants of authority to the president.
“We’re happy that [the President] is embracing our principles and policies,” he said on Fox News this week. “This is a trade procedure. This just determines how does an administration go about getting a trade agreement and how does Congress consider it. It’s really sort of the opposite of the old ‘fast track.’ It’s slow track. We wanted more accountability, more transparency, so that we as legislators can see what’s going on.”
And the bill that passed the Senate and is working its way toward today’s expected vote really does change the relationship between the Congress and the White House when it comes to trade negotiations.
Except where it doesn’t.
Under the bill, the big thing that doesn’t change is that the president still gets to bring the negotiated package to the House and Senate, and both bodies can conduct only up-or-down votes. The trade agreements, including the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, rise or fall as a whole, with no tinkering by Congress.
“It’s pretty much the same,” said Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former consultant to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “The main difference is really not as much in the procedure as it is in the transparency.”
“The procedural matters are pretty much the same,” agreed Scott Miller, the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former director of international trade policy at Procter & Gamble. “There’s a greater deal of post-agreement review…but the procedures are fairly similar.”
The bill provides extensive guidance to the executive branch about what members of Congress want to see in a trade bill, which in itself is nothing new. However, because trade deals under negotiation today like the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership cover more of the economy than previous trade deals, the instructions are more detailed.
Ironically, the biggest difference the proposal will make in the way trade deals are negotiated will have far less impact on the controversial TPP deal than it will on future negotiations. That’s because it gives every member of Congress the ability to ask for and receive updates on ongoing trade negotiations – including information that has traditionally been treated as state secrets.
“It will be much more difficult to be a U.S. Trade Representative after this bill passes than it is today,” said Miller. “But that’s a risk that Congress has chosen to take in order to deal constructively with the desire of members of Congress and the public to know more about what’s going on.”
He added, “There is more focus on the ability of members not on the committees of jurisdiction to observe and interact with negotiators. That’s important because trade agreements cover a lot more of the economy than they did 40 years ago.”
In addition, there will be more opportunities for Congress to scuttle a trade deal, said Barfield.
“Congress gets another bite at the apple,” he said. “If they think at the end of the process that the administration didn’t follow their instructions, it can be derailed.
He said there is also a much longer lag between when the negotiations are completed and the Congress votes – a period when the full text of the deal will be available to the public.
“If they finished the negotiations in September,” he said, “it would be the first of the next year” before anything would come up for a vote.
But in the end, that vote can still be a simple up-or-down on the whole package.
In the case of the TPP, that means that lawmakers who object to single provisions or narrow slices of the deal would have to be willing to shoot down an entire 12-nation agreement covering a huge portion of the U.S. economy in order to prevent them.
Some, no doubt, will be willing to try. But unless the deal is so egregiously bad that is attracts widespread public condemnation, that will be a heavy lift. That’s what TPP advocates are counting on, and what its opponents are upset about.
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