Congress Enacts Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance; Moves Closer to Customs Conference 

The legislative trade agenda continued to move forward over the past several weeks with the enactment of  important legislation resulting in a key victory for President Obama.  After a temporary setback in the House, Congressional leaders and supporters of Trade Promotion Authority (“TPA”) managed to devise a procedural strategy that finally succeeded. 

Congress was able to enact – in a matter of days – three major pieces of trade legislation that had been lingering for years.  In addition to TPA, Congress also passed legislation renewing Trade Adjustment Assistance (“TAA”) and the Trade Preference Extension Act, which renewed and extended the Generalized System of Preferences program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act and two preference programs for Haiti.  The Senate also named conferees to the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, also known as Customs Reauthorization. 

The passage of Trade Promotion Authority will arm the Obama Administration with a long sought-after tool to help close negotiations on the multi-party Trans-Pacific Partnership and the EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  In order to achieve success, the President to rely heavily on Republican support, which came at the expense of marginalizing supporters within his own party.  In an earlier vote, House Democrats broke rank with the President and tried to slow consideration of TPA by voting against TAA, a program which they have long championed and supported.  This required TPA proponents to revise their tactical strategy to pass the bills.  The plan ultimately worked, and the steps taken to clear the trade package is described in more detail below.

Senate Passes Bills Renewing Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance; Same Measures Fail to Pass House

Just before the start of the Memorial Day recess, the Senate concluded debate on a bill that combined measures renewing and expanding TPA and TAA.   The Senate passed the combined TPA/TAA package – the Trade Act of 2015 (H.R. 1314) with a vote of 61-38 on May 22.  This completed the Senate’s consideration of key trade bills.  A little over a week earlier, the upper chamber passed a bill extending trade preference programs for Africa, Haiti and certain developing countries benefiting from the Generalized System of Preferences (“GSP”) program in the Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2013, H.R. 1295, as amended with S. 1267.  It also passed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, H.R. 644, also referred to as Customs Reauthorization legislation.  With work in the Senate complete, attention shifted to the House.

On June 11, the House considered and passed with a vote of 397-32, a modified version of the Senate-passed Trade Preferences Extension Act.  It then turned the next day to consider TAA, TPA and Customs Reauthorization.  The TPA vote was considered simultaneously with TAA under a rule that called for a separate vote on each measure, but required approval of both to secure final passage in the House.  In a surprising move to many, Democrats cut rank with the President and largely voted against TAA – in principle – to slow down consideration of TPA.  As a result, TAA failed to garner enough votes to pass and went down 126-302.  TPA passed in a second vote (219-211), but it was symbolic because the TAA vote failed.  The final result, driven by the structure of the rule, was that neither measure passed the House. 

After the TAA/TPA debacle, the House next considered the Customs Reauthorization bill, which passed 240-190.  Because the House and Senate Customs bills differ, the two chambers have indicated they will hold a conference.  Leaders made clear at the time that the conference would not be able to move forward until the TPA/TAA impasse was resolved because the House Customs bill contained amendments related TPA.   Examples of those amendments include, among others, a provision to address human trafficking and a negotiating objective to prevent the U.S. from entering into any trade agreement that would require a change to U.S. laws to address climate change.

Second Time’s A Charm:  Revised Congressional Strategy to Enact Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance Succeeds

Given the setbacks in the House, congressional leaders supportive of TPA revised a new strategy to outmaneuver Democrats on TAA by de-linking it from TPA.  On June 18, the House passed a stand-alone TPA bill (H.R. 2146), which included a modification to add a trafficking-related negotiating objective, by a vote of 218-208.  The Senate filed cloture on the same day to start the process for consideration of the House-passed TPA bill.  On June 24, the Senate passed the House measure 60-30 and sent it to the White House for signature on the same day.

The path to reconsider TAA began in the Senate, where the chamber considered a separate bill that combined renewal of TAA with the Trade Preferences Extension Act, H.R. 1295.   The Senate also added to this package a provision from the Customs bill that would strengthen antidumping and countervailing duty laws.  The bill containing those combined measures passed on June 24, with a vote of 76-22.  The House considered the same package on June 25, and passed it with a vote of 286-138.  The bill was presented to the President on June 26, and  is expected to be signed into law.

With TPA, TAA and the renewal of key trade preference programs finalized, Congress will next turn to the Customs bill.  On the same day the Senate passed TPA, it also passed a motion to  conference H.R. 644.  Named conferees include Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), and Senators John Thune (R-SD),  Johnny Isakson (R-GA),  as well as Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member, Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).  The House is expected to name conferees after the July 4th recess.  It is widely anticipated that the conference will move quickly, with a target enactment of the conference report – and adoption of the bill – concluding before Congress adjourns for the August recess.