Trade Promotion Authority Secures Approval in US Congress

25 June 2015

The US Senate approved Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) on Wednesday, just days after the House also voted in favour of the legislation. The bill is now set to go the US President’s desk this week, where it is expected to be soon signed into law.

The successful passage of TPA in the Senate – which went through by a 60-38 vote margin – was widely expected after a procedural vote to invoke “cloture” on TPA passed the day prior.

Invoking cloture is a move that essentially breaks a filibuster, instead limiting debate on a pending matter for up to 30 additional hours. While the vote on TPA itself required only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass, cloture is a more difficult threshold to reach, requiring 60 votes.

“Today, the U.S. Congress made clear that the United States intends to lead on trade, deliver more, good middle class jobs, and unlock opportunity for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and small businesses across the country,” said US Trade Representative Michael Froman following the cloture vote.

The TPA legislation sets out US principal negotiating objectives in trade deals and allows for completed agreements to be submitted by the US executive branch to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, without the possibility of amendment. The previous version of TPA was enacted in 2002 and expired in 2007.

The bill approved by Congress includes various new measures on transparency, as well as language that would strip a final trade deal from this “fast track” protection should it be found that the executive branch failed to meet TPA’s consultation or transparency requirements, for instance if lawmakers find that the deal has not made sufficient progress in meeting congressional priorities and objectives.

Legislative manoeuvres

The road to bring the TPA legislation to the President’s desk has proved to be a tricky one, with efforts in both chambers of Congress hitting repeated stumbling blocks before ultimately securing approval.

Overcoming these stumbling blocks has, in turn, required difficult legislative manoeuvring, with Republican leadership and pro-trade Democrats attempting a series of approaches in combining – or separating – various trade bills in order to ensure that all receive approval.

Approval in the House last week, for example, came only after TPA was dealt a devastating defeat in that same chamber days before when it was attached to Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a support programme for US workers displaced by trade. (See Bridges Weekly, 18 June 2015)

The loss prompted TPA proponents to pursue the legislation as a stand-alone bill, while working to provide pro-trade Democrats the necessary assurances that TAA would still receive the support to advance, given that Republicans have traditionally opposed the programme.

“This has been a long and rather twisted path to where we are today, but it's are a very, very important accomplishment for the country,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday following the cloture vote.

AGOA, TAA renewal

TAA has now been attached to a separate bill that would renew a series of US preference schemes, including the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and preferential duty treatment for Haiti. That legislation was also approved by the Senate on Wednesday, and is now set for House consideration today.

In the wake of TPA’s approval, members of the Republican leadership have repeated past assurances that they will help TAA cross the finish line as well.

“We remain committed to ensuring that both TPA and TAA are passed and enacted into law,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner on Tuesday, pledging that his chamber would consider TAA once the Senate approves its own version, as part of the larger preferences bill.

“Our goal is to get TPA and TAA to the president’s desk this week and deliver this win for the American people,” he added.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, told fellow lawmakers in her party that she would be voting in favour of the TAA/Preferences package this week.

“While we have not all voted in the same manner, we all recognise that the next debate will be over Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] itself and all Members – on both sides of this debate – will shine a bright light on the provisions of TPP,” Pelosi said in a letter on Wednesday.

Furthermore, Pelosi said, she would “support [TAA’s] passage because it can open the door to a full debate on TPP.”

Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat that had been one of the leading voices in the House against the current iteration of TPA, has also said that he anticipates most of his Democratic colleagues to now vote today in favour of TAA, according to comments reported by Reuters.

Another key piece of legislation is a customs and enforcement bill, which has been passed in both chambers and must now undergo a “conference” process in order to reconcile the differences in the House and Senate versions.

McConnell has said that he intends to go this week to conference on the customs bill. Boehner, for his part, has made the same commitment.

TPP boost

The enactment of TPA is expected to give a boost to a series of trade initiatives that the US is involved in, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

The former is a 12-country effort involving various Pacific Rim countries, which is reportedly in the final stages. Efforts to bring the deal to a close had slowed during the TPA process, with other TPP partners reportedly reticent to make their most difficult concessions without knowing whether the necessary trade legislation was in place in Washington.

“We are literally one week of negotiation away from completing this extraordinary deal across 12 countries and 40 percent of the world's GDP,” said Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb last week, in an interview with ABC Radio.

At the time, the Australian official had warned that a failure to pass TPA in Washington could create “a real problem with the future of the TPP.”

Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari, for his part, told the Reuters news agency yesterday that enacting TPA would mean there “won’t be a big hurdle,” to reach a broad TPP deal next month.

A ministerial-level meeting of TPP members had originally been expected last month, given that trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries – a 21-country group that includes all 12 TPP members – were meeting in the Philippines.

However, that meeting was then postponed indefinitely in light of the US congressional processes. When and where it will be rescheduled has not yet been announced. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 May 2015)

Reactions

The response to TPA’s final passage have varied widely, in a reflection of the highly-polarised nature of the trade discussions.

Thomas Donohue, President and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday that the cloture vote marked “an important step towards revitalising our economy, creating good American jobs, and reasserting our country’s global economic leadership.”

Labour union federations such as the AFL-CIO, however, have advocated strongly against TPA, warning that passing it “would lead to another bad trade deal that would cost American jobs,” according to a statement issued earlier this month by Richard Trumka, the group’s president. The AFL-CIO includes 56 US unions.

Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group that has lobbied strongly against both TPA and TPP, released a statement following Tuesday’s cloture vote that urged their supporters to redirect their efforts toward blocking the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s approval, even with the final TPA vote on Wednesday still pending at that time.

“Today’s action means that Congress will tie its hands to prevent it from exerting positive influence over negotiations of the TPP,” said Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, in an e-mailed statement. “What it doesn’t mean is that Congress must past such a TPP.”

ICTSD reporting; “Japan says broad agreement on Pacific trade deal possible in July,: REUTERS, 24 June 2015; “Wyden: Dems will hold the line on customs bill,” THE HILL, 23 June 2015; “Obama’s Pacific trade pact nears finish in U.S. Congress,” REUTERS, 24 June 2015; “Pacific Trade Authority Bill Wins Final Approval in the Senate,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 24 June 2015.

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