Senate Passes Bills Extending Trade Preference Programs and Reauthorizing Customs; Continues Debate on Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance

The legislative trade agenda picked-up significantly over the past few weeks with the introduction of many long-awaited bills, followed by quick committee and floor action. 

Four key bills were introduced in both the Senate and House in late April, including the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015, also known as “trade promotion authority” or “fast track,” the Trade Adjustment Assistance Enhancement Act of 2015, the AGOA Extension and Enhancement Act of 2015 (which also includes extension of benefits provided under the Generalized System of Preferences and two programs benefiting Haiti), and finally, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which reauthorizes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, among other things.

The Senate Finance Committee held a mark-up of these bills on April 22, 2015.  All bills were favorably passed, some with amendments.  Among the notable amendments include a provision to the Trade Promotion Authority bill that would prevent the application of “fast track” procedures to an agreement with a country that has a poor record on human trafficking, which was offered by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ).  The Customs bill was also passed with several amendments, including a provision to address currency manipulation through domestic trade remedy laws, offered by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), and a new process for consideration of the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, offered by Senator Bob Portman (D-OH).  In addition, the Chairman’s mark included a provision that would strengthen U.S. trade remedy law by making it easier to file cases at the Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission, which was offered by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  For more information on the Senate Finance Committee mark-up, including opening statements and amendments, click here.

After the Senate Finance Committee mark-up, the bills were packaged into three legislative vehicles for consideration by the full Senate.  On May 12, the Senate passed the Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015, H.R. 1295, as amended with S. 1267, by 97-1.  On the same day, it also passed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 215, H.R. 644, as amended with S. 1269, by 78-20.   The trade preference package would provide a ten-year extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, as well as its third-country fabric provision and also expand the Generalized System of Preferences retroactively until December 31, 2017.  The Customs bill includes Senator Wyden’s Enforcing Orders and Reducing Circumvention Evasion (ENFORCE) Act, which creates an administrative process to address duty evasion. 

The Trade Promotion Authority (“TPA”) bill and Trade Adjustment Assistance (“TAA”) bill were combined, after the Senate failed to gain cloture on an earlier vote for consideration of TPA on its own.  The same day the Customs and trade preference bills were passed, the Senate successfully obtained cloture (65-33) to proceed to debate on the combined TPA/TAA bill.  Debate on the package began on May 18, however Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has signaled an intent to wrap up the process within the week and vote on bill before the Memorial Day recess. 

The new TPA measure would renew presidential negotiating authority for up to six years, create a new consultation process, and allow Congress to remove the authority if the Administration fails to meet the newly updated Congressionally-mandated negotiating objectives.  The TAA measure reauthorizes the program at $450 million per year and extends it through June 30, 2021. 

House Ways and Means Marks Up Trade Bills; Floor Consideration Pending

Following the Senate’s lead, the House Ways and Means Committee held a mark-up of near identical trade bills on April 23, the day after the Senate Finance Committee’s mark-up.   The TPA bill passed 25-13, with two Democrats voting, the trade preferences and customs bills were favorably reported by voice vote, and the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) bill was ordered reported without recommendation by voice vote. 

Democrats offered numerous amendments to the bills, however all were defeated along party lines.  The only amendment accepted was offered by Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) to the Customs bill.  The provision would require Customs and Border Protection to remit certain interest payments owed to domestic producers under the repealed Byrd Amendment.   For more information on the House Ways and Means mark-up click here.

Chairman Paul Ryan has indicated that the House will consider all four bills after the Senate has finished voting, and expects this to take place shortly after Members return from the Memorial Day recess.  Moreover, Congressional leaders have also signaled that after House passage they will quickly pivot to conference work, particularly on Customs, where difference in the two chambers’ bills will need to be addressed.  These include, among others, consideration of the currency provision, which is presently in the Senate Customs bill, but not the House, and differences between the enforcement measures of the bills.