On April 16, long-awaited trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation was introduced in the House and Senate. The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (S. 995/H.R. 1890) is sponsored by the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D- OR), and the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan (R-WI). The Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee, Sandy Levin (D-MI), was notably not a co-sponsor of the bill. The legislation renews presidential authority to negotiate and submit to Congress trade agreements, including the nearly-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Previous trade promotion authority lapsed in 2007.
In addition to providing the President with the authority to negotiate trade deals, the bill also sets out Congressionally-mandated negotiating objectives for such agreements, establishes the requirements for consultations and information sharing with Congress, and permits the removal of fast track consideration of final legislation if the Administration fails to meet TPA requirements.
The legislation is similar in form and content to the TPA bill introduced in January 2014, with several significant changes that provide greater transparency in trade negotiations and enhance Congressional input. For example, the bill requires the President to share draft texts with Members of Congress and their staffs. It also requires that the President submit all agreements to Congress for review 60 days prior to signing an agreement. The legislation also requires the Administration to publish detailed summaries of specific objectives, which will be updated throughout the negotiating process, and establishes a Transparency Officer in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative with responsibility to consult with Congress. Finally, the TPA bill requires the President to submit both the legal text of any agreement and the Statement of Administrative Action regarding how the agreement’s provisions will be enacted at least 30 days prior to submitting an implementation bill to Congress.
The Hatch-Wyden-Ryan agreement and subsequent bill introduction is clearly an important and necessary step in enacting TPA. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the legislation on Thursday, April 16, hours before the bill was actually introduced. The Committee held a continuation of that hearing on April 21. Mark-up of the bill occurred in the Finance Committee on April 22, and the bill was favorably reported, as was expected.
It is reasonable to predict that the full Senate will pass the bill that came out of Finance, although perhaps not in the same form, and only with passage of an accompanying bill or bills geared to win sufficient support for TPA from Senators on both sides of the aisle. Without such inducements, it is doubtful that TPA supporters are anywhere near the 60 Senators needed to withstand a cloture vote if needed. What is more likely is that pro-TPP Democratic senators will align themselves with anti-TPP Democratic senators in agreeing to amendments that would require greater concessions from the Obama Administration. Perhaps greatest of these is putative Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) efforts to add a currency manipulation provision to the bill. Other provisions include renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences, and Customs Reauthorization. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said that he intends to bring the bill to the floor as soon as the Senate finishes dealing with the Iran congressional review bill. Assuming that TPA can pass the full Senate, the hard part would then begin.
Consideration in the House of Representatives began in the Ways and Means Committee on April 22. There was no stopping the bill in committee, as it passed by a vote of 25-13 with two Democrats joining all committee Republicans in support, but the mark-up will set the stage for the floor debate. There, the bill will face a substantial number of Republicans who do not want to give the President the authority to negotiate trade agreements, despite the fact that he has been doing just that for the last six years, even without TPA authority. Even U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has acknowledged that the TPP is almost concluded. Admittedly, the most difficult issues in any negotiation are not addressed until just before a deal moves forward or dies. Having TPA authority may be what the Administration needs to pull the agreement over the finish line. And again, a good number of Republicans do not want the President to have that authority. The opposition to the bill, of course, does not stop with Republicans. Many House Democrats are staunch opponents of the bill. Led by labor unions, environmentalists such as the Sierra Club, and liberal organizations such as MoveOn.org, most House Democrats will oppose the bill forcefully. While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has not made a public statement yet on this version of the TPA bill, she opposed the similar one that was introduced last year. This one will contain Trade Adjustment Assistance not only for manufacturing workers, but for the first time, services industries employees. Will that be enough to obtain her critically-needed support for the bill? Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Levin strenuously objects to the deal-in-waiting for reasons that include his concerns about Japan’s continued protection of its agriculture and auto industries.
There are 244 Republicans and 188 Democrats today in the House. It takes 218 votes to pass a bill. Thus, Republicans can lose 26 of their colleagues before needing House Democrats. The last time this issue was seriously considered, over 150 Democrats opposed TPA. That would leave approximately 35 Democrats who might vote for the bill. If there are more than 61 Republicans voting no and no more than 35 Democrats voting yes, the bill would not pass. Passage is possible, but as of today, the votes may not yet be there. On the other hand, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Leader Pelosi do seem more amenable to working together, most recently to pass Medicare Sustained Growth Rate legislation and, prior to that, the Department of Homeland Security funding bill. It is certainly too soon to call the TPA bill dead.