Strange Bedfellows, Schisms, and Subterfuge: Where Does the Trade Agenda Stand?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a still-evolving trade agreement that would reduce tariffs and other barriers to goods and services trade between the United States and 11 other countries. It also would likely include provisions designed to protect certain U.S. industries from the full effects of competition.  A TPP agreement, then, would likely increase our economic freedoms in some realms and reduce them in others.  How these pros and cons would be manifest is unclear at the moment, given the fact that the deal is not done.  But it would a mistake to forego the opportunity to evaluate a completed trade deal that could deliver significant benefits. 

It is broadly understood that the TPP negotiations cannot be concluded without the Congress passing, and the president signing, Trade Promotion Authority legislation.  Without TPA, the president could not be sure that any trade deal brought home reflected the official wishes of Congress, and the likelihood that foreign negotiators would put their best and final offers on the table—knowing that Congress could unravel the deal’s terms—is close to zero.

The Senate passed TPA legislation (along with language reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program) on May 22.  The House is likely to take up the bill this week.  At the moment, the president is in lockstep with a large majority of congressional Republicans, who support trade liberalization and see TPA as essential to the process.  But some Republicans (mostly from the conservative wing), who are wary of giving this president any more power, have joined ranks with the vast majority of congressional Democrats in opposition to TPA.  Meanwhile, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton—an architect of the TPP as Secretary of State and a potential heir to the trade agenda—has refused to take a position on TPA.

The spotlight on trade policy has generated much more heat than light.  Misinformation abounds.  Rationalizations masquerade as rationales.

This new Cato Free Trade Bulletin is intended to dispel some of the nonsense that has been circulating and to present a brief, objective assessment of what has transpired and what lies ahead for TPA and TPP.