Pacific Trade Deal’s Long Journey Is Just Beginning
Policy + Politics

Pacific Trade Deal’s Long Journey Is Just Beginning

© Bob Riha Jr / Reuters

The news that negotiators from 11 Pacific countries, including the U.S., have completed negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that will touch some 40 percent of the world’s cross-border sale of goods and services, sets off a long march toward an up-or-down vote in Congress that will likely take place just as presidential primary elections are heating up.

The vote, when it eventually comes, will be a political football, particularly for presidential candidates. And both parties will want in on the game.

Calling the deal “disastrous” and warning that it will “hurt consumers and cost American jobs,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, currently a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, promised to oppose it in the Senate.

Related: How TPA Could Make Trade Deals More Transparent

“This agreement follows failed trade deals with Mexico, China and other low-wage countries that have cost millions of jobs and shuttered tens of thousands of factories across the United States,” Sanders said in a statement. “In the Senate, I will do all that I can to defeat this agreement. We need trade policies that benefit American workers and consumers, not just CEOs of large multi-national corporations." 

Hillary Clinton, who pushed the deal in its early form as Secretary of State, has been reluctant to take a position on TPP, largely because of the split in the Democratic Party between the liberal wing, represented by Sanders, which feels that trade deals hurt workers, and the more pro-business wing, that believes free trade stimulates the economy.

On the Republican side, current front-runner Donald Trump is almost certain to come out against the deal, if only because he has spent much of his campaign railing against the Obama administration for making bad deals.

Others in the GOP race will have to tread carefully. Even those who support free trade will be wary of looking as though they have aligned themselves with the president at a time when the Party’s most committed partisans are going to the polls to select a presidential nominee.

Related: Boehner Gambles and Wins on TPA, but Trade Deal Could Still Be a Loser 

Here’s how the process will play out. First, the president has to give Congress 90 days’ notice before he officially signs on to the agreement. At least 60 days ahead of time, he must also provide a full copy of the agreement – which runs to thousands of pages – on the website of the United States Trade Representative.

Assuming the president announces his intent to sign the deal in relatively short order – say this week – that means he can’t officially enter into the agreement until the first week of January at the earliest.

Up to this point, the process is on autopilot. The notice requirement, giving lawmakers time to examine the deal makes the process more transparent, but does nothing to affect the President’s ability to sign it.

“The President possesses inherent authority to negotiate with other countries to arrive at trade agreements,” notes the Congressional Research Service.

However, “If any such agreement requires changes in U.S. law…it could be implemented only through legislation enacted by Congress.”

Here is the potential sticking point. At an undetermined point in time after the president signs the deal, he has to deliver suggested implementing legislation to Congress. This would include all of the adjustments to existing U.S. law needed to bring the country into compliance with the agreement.

Related: Pelosi Torpedoes Obama’s Trade Authority Package

Under TPA rules, that package of changes is automatically introduced in both Houses of Congress and referred to the Committees of jurisdiction. The committees have 45 legislative days to report out an unamended version of the bill, and if either committee fails to do so, it is automatically “discharged” from its responsibility to manage the bill, and the legislation becomes eligible for a vote.

Given the schedule Congress works these days, 45 legislative days can stretch into four or five calendar months. Even in the unlikely event that the Obama administration could craft the necessary implementing legislation by January that could still mean no vote until April or May. (In 2015, the 45th legislative day of the Congressional session didn’t take place until the end of April.)

Related: Trade Bill Advances as Rift in GOP Widens

In the end, the TPP will likely be signed, and the necessary implementing legislation passed. It’s the biggest trade deal negotiated by the U.S. in decades, and forced to take it or leave it, the majority of members of Congress have clearly leaned toward the “take it” category.

That said, if the details of the deal spark enough outrage – or enough Congressional Republicans decide that damaging the Obama legacy is worth sustaining lasting political damage, things could get interesting in mid-2016.