The eyes of the international trade community are fixed on Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), upon whom responsibility for crafting bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation has fallen. At last report, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch and Ranking Member Wyden were at an impasse over some important components of the bill, passage of which is widely considered necessary to concluding the long-gestating, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. That agreement must be concluded before the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations make any progress. Those negotiations will have far-reaching implications for the multilateral trading system, including China, India, Brazil and other countries not currently party to these mega-regional trade agreements. Hence, TPA’s outcome is of worldwide interest.
Trade Promotion Authority has been maligned as a congressional capitulation or executive power grab. It is neither. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” and grants the president power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Accordingly, the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of trade agreements require the involvement and cooperation of both branches. TPA is a compact between the branches that obliges these respective constitutional authorities, while guaranteeing an up-or-down vote by Congress, on an expedited basis, of any trade agreement negotiated by the executive branch with foreign governments, provided that the agreements meet the objectives spelled-out by Congress in the legislation. This conditionality is often ignored or brushed over by news reporters, who either spend too much time with trade skeptics or who are looking to economize on words.
Without such a compact, trade agreements would be nearly impossible to conclude because foreign negotiators – knowing that any agreement reached would be subject to congressional revisions – would never put their best offers on the table. The process of negotiating and renegotiating with 535 officials (instead of one agency, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative) would make for an interminable process too cumbersome and costly to pursue. For practical purposes, negotiations have to occur between small parties vested with the authority to speak on behalf of those whom they represent. Trade Promotion Authority is the solution.
Being a U.S. senator can be fun. The position brings with it a certain amount of influence, fame, and stature. However, serving in the Senate also is fraught with challenges. Much time must be spent away from family. Flying back and forth between home and Washington can wear a person out. And some voters always are unhappy with you, sometimes really unhappy.
This is a complicated moment for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). He has paid his dues in the Senate since 1997 and now is one of its more senior members. That seniority has brought him to the position of ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has the responsibility (among others) for establishing policies pertaining to international trade.
Congress is trying to decide whether to grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), formerly known as “fast track” authority. TPA commits Congress to an up-or-down vote (no amendments) on a trade agreement presented to it by the White House. This procedure provides foreign negotiating partners with assurance that Congress will consider any agreement as a complete package, thus avoiding the risk that it might be amended in response to pressure from groups that are unhappy with one or more of its provisions.
Such pressure dissuaded Congress from approving provisions that had been agreed to by the administration in the 1967 Kennedy Round of negotiations, which were conducted under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Other countries were not amused when the United States didn’t live up to its Kennedy Round commitments. To rebuild its negotiating credibility, the United States needed to find a way to bridge the Constitution’s clear delineation of powers: the president has the right to negotiate with other countries, but Congress has authority to regulate foreign commerce.
The response was the Trade Act of 1974, which developed the basic formula for approving trade agreements that has been used ever since. Congress granted the president five years of negotiating authority that covered both tariffs and non-tariff measures.
The most recent version of TPA expired in 2007. President Obama currently is seeking a new grant of negotiating authority in order to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other nations, and possibly also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the 28 members of the European Union.
Senator Wyden will play a crucial role in determining whether or not TPA is approved. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chairman of the Finance Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would like to introduce TPA legislation. However, they don’t want to do so without bipartisan support. There is a long tradition of Democrats and Republicans working together on behalf of trade liberalization.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, generally opposes trade reforms that could lead to a greater selection of affordable automobiles for consumers. In other words, he’s a lost cause when it comes to sponsoring a version of TPA that the White House might approve. This is why all eyes are on Senator Wyden.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes to the Washington Post op-ed pages today to warn about the dangers of the so-called Investor-State Dispute Mechanism, which is likely to be a part of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. In substance, if not style, Sen. Warren’s perspective on ISDS is one that libertarians and other free market advocates should share. At least, my colleague Simon Lester and I do.
ISDS grants foreign investors the right to sue host governments in third-party arbitration tribunals for treatment that allegedly fails to meet certain standards, such as new laws, regulations, or policies that might have a discriminatory effect on foreign investors that reduces the value of their assets. Certainly, investors – and in this context we’re talking mostly about multinational corporations (MNCs) – should have recourse to justice when these situations arise. But under ISDS, U.S. investors abroad and foreign investors in the United States can collect damages from the treasuries of their host governments by virtue of the judgments of arbitration panels that are entirely outside of the legal structure of the respective countries. This all raises serious questions about democratic accountability, sovereignty, checks and balances, and the separation of power.
An important pillar of trade agreements is the concept of “national treatment,” which says that imports and foreign companies will be afforded treatment no different from that afforded domestic products and companies. The principle is a commitment to nondiscrimination. But ISDS turns national treatment on its head, giving privileges to foreign companies that are not available to domestic companies. If a U.S. natural gas company believes that the value of its assets has suffered on account of a new subsidy for solar panel producers, judicial recourse is available in the U.S. court system only. But for foreign companies, ISDS provides an additional adjudicatory option.
Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or Fast-Track Negotiating Authority) is not an executive power grab. It is a compact between the legislative and executive branches, which each have distinct authorities under the Constitution when it comes to conducting trade policy. The purpose of forging such a compact is that negotiations would be impracticable – and likely interminable – if each provision were subject to the whims of 535 legislators.
Opponents of trade liberalization have smeared TPA as a wholesale capitulation to the president, who allegedly is freed of any congressional oversight and given a blank check to negotiate unamendable trade deals in secret without any input from Congress – only the capacity to vote up or down on the final deal. In reality, though, TPA is the vehicle through which Congress conveys its trade policy objectives, conditions, and demands to the president, who negotiates with those parameters in mind. Provided the president concludes a negotiation that abides those congressional parameters, the deal is given fast track consideration, which means essentially that legislative procedures are streamlined and expedited.
The trade committees are reportedly close to introducing trade promotion authority legislation, although there remains some debate about what it should include. Enforceable provisions to discipline currency manipulation would be a bad idea, as would be including provisions to reauthorize the ineffective and misguided Trade Adjustment Assistance program (which is widely acknowledged to be a payoff to organized labor).
But one important provision (or set of provisions) that has created a bit of an impasse between Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and its Ranking Member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) concerns certification that an agreement abides the requisite congressional conditions to be afforded fast track treatment. Those of us who argue that TPA is not an executive power grab, but a practical, constitutional solution to a policymaking quandary must acknowledge the propriety of such a provision – or a provision that accomplishes as much. There must be a mechanism through which the president is held to account – that the deal reflects the broad wishes of Congress.
President Obama is presiding over what may prove to be the most significant round of trade liberalization in American history, yet he has never once made an affirmative case for that outcome. Despite various reports of intensifying outreach to members of Congress, the president’s “advocacy” is couched in enough skepticism to create and reinforce fears about trade and globalization.
On Tuesday, Obama sent a letter directly to Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), arguing that reaching new trade agreements is the only way to stop China from dominating the global markets and letting its lax standards run the world.
“If they succeed, our competitors would be free to ignore basic environmental and labor standards, giving them an unfair advantage against American workers,” Obama wrote Gallego in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “We can’t let that happen. We should write the rules, and level the playing field for the middle class.”
Certainly, playing the China card could help win support for Trade Promotion Authority and, eventually, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it needn’t be the first selling point. Pitching trade agreements as though they were innoculations from an otherwise imminent disease betrays a profound lack of understanding of the benefits of trade. With TPP near completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks expected to accelerate, the president’s stubborn refusal to make an affirmative case for his trade initiatives to the public and the skeptics in his party is disconcerting. Bill Watson was troubled by the president’s feeble advocacy of trade liberalization in his SOTU address.
With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations reported to be nearing completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks kicking into higher gear, Congress is expected to turn its attention to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation in the weeks ahead.
That’s where opponents of trade – mostly from the Left, but some from the Right – have decided to wage the next battle in their war against trade liberalization. Tactically, that makes some sense because, if they succeed, the TPP and the TTIP will be sidelined indefinitely. But, as observed by the Greek Tragedians and countless times in the millennia since, truth is the first casualty of war.
Trade opponents characterize TPA as an executive power-grab, a legislative capitulation, and a blank check from Congress that entitles the president to negotiate trade deals in secret without any congressional input except the right to vote “yea” or “nay” on an unalterable, unamendable, completed and signed agreement. But the truth is that TPA does not cede any authority from one branch to the other, but makes exercise of that authority more practicable for both branches.
Under the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Congress is given the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” While the president has no specific constitutional authority over trade, Article II grants the president power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Accordingly, the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of trade agreements require the involvement and cooperation of both branches.