Trade Promotion Authority Likely on the Way to President

After significant delays, both based in partisan gamesmanship and wariness from the most progressive in President Barack Obama’s own party, Congress appears close to approving trade promotion authority for the president. The move should clear the way for the United States to push a long-negotiate multilateral free trade agreements (FTA’s) to the finish line in the coming months.

Widespread reports have surfaced noting that key federal lawmakers have crafted legislation that will give Obama trade promotion authority, which is seen as critical for the administration to negotiating the final points of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other deals. Supporters, including organizations such as Business Roundtable, the National Retail Federation and more moderate/centrist lawmakers from each party, believe such authority would help fast track the enactment of business-friendly FTAs. Obama even made a passionate plea for the authority during January’s State of the Union address.

"Give me trade promotion authority to promote deals in Europe and Asia," Obama said. "I’ll be the first to admit that past trade deals haven't lived up to the hype. But 95% of the world's customers live outside our borders ... Small businesses need to sell more products overseas."

Trade promotion authority is a strategic working relationship between the president and Congress that sets the parameters for the U.S. in various international trade negotiations, establishes a framework for Congress and the executive branch to more quickly work out agreements and includes a set of legislative procedures that allows the president to submit to Congress bills implementing trade agreements for an up-or-down vote within a short period of time, without the threat of amendments, according to Robert Brown, a partner with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. Congress has approved this authority for every president from the 1930s until 2007—perhaps not coincidentally, new trade deals have languished since that time.

“By renewing TPA with updated negotiating objectives, Congress can strategically address issues pertaining to current US trade negotiations,” Brown wrote in a 2014 article for NACM’s eNews. “These trade negotiations are of vital importance to the US economy.”

The TPP is the deal closest to complete and one most likely to benefit from potential passage of legislation granting Obama the trade promotion authority. The TPP involves a number of emerging Southeast Asian nations as well as the U. S., Canada, Japan, Chile and Peru, among others. The TPP is supposed to bring together the nations of the Pacific in some kind of trade partnership that will advance their respective economies. It was supposed to be the key to the U.S. "pivot to Asia" policy and, indirectly, a way to ease some of China's trade dominance in the region.

But it has been fraught with delays, diplomatic errors, allegations that the U.S. and Japan have been bullying their way through the trade talks and, perhaps the most unsettling, lack of transparency. Regarding the latter, nearly no one has seen official documents and specific recommendations including in the proposed TPP other than (if they’re to be believed) what has been released by WikiLeaks. These reasons and supposed protection of U.S. workers were among the complaints heavily bandied about this week by a number of liberal Democrats that oppose approving the authority. Many Republicans that in past years opposed giving Obama such authority have eased on their stances, at least publicly.

- Brian Shappell, CBA, CICP, NACM managing editor

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