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.