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Democrats and Republicans: Whether Or Not You Like the TPP, Stop Holding Fast Track and TAA Hostage

June 16, 2015

Last Friday, members of the House of Representatives dealt President Obama a massive and embarrassing political blow, stalling the administration’s trade agenda by refusing to pass Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) – a procedural maneuver designed to prevent the president from getting Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for his signature trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP; international trade policy has become something of an alphabet soup). The TPP has become a massive political battleground, pitting liberal Democrats, unions, grassroots progressives (and a few Tea Party conservatives) in a standoff with their own president and his primarily Republican allies over international trade. Politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows. But as is the case depressingly often in Washington, D.C., policy debate has taken a backseat to political wrangling, and the actual facts of the TPP have become lost in the shuffle as political actors squabble over the wrong issues. The fact of the matter is, while the TPP itself can and should be discussed further, blocking TAA and TPA in an attempt to abort the deal before it’s even revealed is wrong.

Leaders of Trans-Pacific Partnership Member States(Image: Leaders of the TPP member states. Credit: Government of Chile)

First, it’s important to understand that extensive debate and deliberation over the TPP is likely warranted on some level: the TPP is at least nominally a big economic deal, covering countries that account for 40% of total US trade flows as well as 40% of total global GDP. That said…

TPA Is Not the TPP

Both sides of the issue are guilty of conflating the passage of Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance with the passage of the TPP itself. As a result, many people are under the impression that they are the same issue. This could not be further from the truth, however.

To summarize briefly: Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast track authority, is legislation that for a limited time (in the current proposal, six years) grants the President of the United States and his negotiators the ability to get a vote in Congress on their trade proposals. Congress sends a list of negotiating objectives for the proposed trade deal and in return, when the trade deal is finalized, it is guaranteed a straight up or down vote in Congress – no amendments, no filibuster, no getting bogged down in committee or being subject to legislative holds by individual members or factions.

Trade Adjustment Assistance, on the other hand, is a program that, according to the Department of Labor:

“[P]rovides a path for employment growth and opportunity through aid to US workers who have lost their jobs as a result of foreign trade. The TAA program seeks to provide these trade-affected workers with opportunities to obtain the skills, resources, and support they need to become reemployed.”

The US Senate passed a bill that both granted President Obama fast track authority and also renewed TAA, which aside from probably being a good policy idea was also included to get Democratic votes. But House leaders quickly figured out they had a problem: Democrats would not sign on to TPA, and fiscal conservatives did not like TAA. So they split the bills in two, hoping to pass TPA with primarily Republican votes and TAA with primarily Democratic support. Progressive groups, seeing an opening, pressured Congressional Democrats (successfully!) to vote down TAA in a procedural tactic designed to kill the whole process – because if the House does not pass exactly what the Senate passed, the bills have to go to conference committee and the differences must be ironed out and re-voted on. Since TAA failed, the House and Senate have passed different bills and now must engage in the messy process of combining the proposals in some way that will get Democratic and Republican support – a daunting task.

Problematic Tactics

Progressives were tactically savvy in making this move, but wrong substantively. As a matter of principle, every administration should have fast track authority. Odd as it may seem to ask elected officials to vote in a way that would inarguably restrict their own power to impact the trade policy process, they should do exactly that.

Presidents deserve an up or down vote on their proposals because trade deals are not like normal legislation. Every provision has been painstakingly carved out, negotiated, and brought – often torturously – to a consensus. In many cases, world leaders have to expend tremendous political capital to make certain concessions. President Obama argues that the guarantee of an up or down vote is a categorical necessity for completing negotiations, and there is little reason to doubt him. What incentive do other heads of state have to engage in the arduous and politically expensive process of negotiating and compromising if all of their work could be undone by a geographic or political faction of representatives responding to narrow self-interest or interest group pressure?

Without fast track, any group of Congressmen and women who have, say, a factory or plant in their state or district that will have new international competitors as a result of trade, could introduce a tiny amendment getting some sort of special exemption or point of privilege in the deal – and potentially undo hard-fought compromises won by negotiators, passing an agreement that is substantively different from the one that was negotiated. This could, and in all likelihood would, ruin the entire process. As a result, TPA and TPP have been portrayed as being essentially one and the same, in that the former is necessary for the passage of the latter. In our modern political climate, that is realistically the case. But there is no good policy reason for the two issues to be conflated.

The kind of legislative logrolling that would occur in the absence of fast track is part and parcel of the domestic policy process, but it would not work on an international scale. The president is the only official elected by the entire country, and the only one charged with acting in the best interest of all Americans. He (or she, remember that fast track will last six years) deserves, regardless of political affiliation, to be able to bring his proposal to the table without getting sidelined by procedure or political gamesmanship.

Further, Democrats’ tactics here are especially disappointing because they mirror Republican strategies that liberals harshly criticized, namely the use of procedural tactics to threaten broader objectives and legislation. Holding up TPA and TAA, both of which are sound policies, just to strike at the TPP itself, is the kind of petty politics for which progressives have castigated the GOP for years. And Republicans are not inculpable: a study by the Peterson Institute estimates the economic benefits of the TPP on US GDP at around $78 billion per year, which dwarfs the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that TAA reauthorization (which Republicans helped vote down) will cost $88 million combined from 2015 to 2025. If Republicans really believe in the economic benefits of free trade and are not just refusing to save the bill so they can embarrass the president, reauthorization is the obvious choice.

The point is straightforward: if you do not like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, vote against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade Promotion Authority does not disenfranchise you, as it still gives Congressmen a yes or no vote. And Trade Adjustment Assistance provides much needed help to workers at little cost relative to the gains of trade.

So let the administration (and all future administrations) release the final text of the agreement and make their case to Congress and the American public. Then vote no if you disapprove of the agreement itself – there are plenty of important, substantive, economic and broader policy reasons not to, just as there are good arguments for the deal. But do not hold up the entire process, and undermine the Commander in Chief’s ability to negotiate in good faith, by leaving open the possibility of poison pill amendments or pork barrel politicking.

The TPP itself is worthy of debate, but TPA and TAA are no brainers.

 

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

 

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