The President has constitutional authority to negotiate trade agreements. But when the agreements call for changes in US laws, they must be implemented through the Congress. Such legislation is typically considered under special procedures known as “fast track” or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) whereby Congress agrees to consider the agreement within a limited period of time and to forgo the opportunity to amend the agreement.
TPA protections allow the US to negotiate the best deal possible with trading partners because our trading partners can be assured that the agreement will not be picked apart by Congressional amendments.
Unlike his predecessors, President Obama has not had TPA during his tenure. He did not seek this authority in his first term. President Obama asked for TPA in his State of the Union address this year, but Senate Majority Leader Reid immediately announced that he would not allow TPA to be considered by the Senate, certainly not before mid-term elections.
The President wants TPA to help close the most important and timely trade negotiation underway involving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement which would liberalize trade among 12 countries, including Japan and Vietnam. The Administration is trying very hard to close TPP in the next few months.
Japan and other TPP countries are reluctant to close TPP without TPA’s procedural protections and have been urging the Administration to secure TPA as quickly as possible. Congressional Republicans also have urged the President to press for TPA passage before trying to close TPP.
In post-election interviews this week, both President Obama and Republican Leader McConnell cited trade as an area where they hoped to work together.
There are two legislative windows in which to move TPA: the lame duck session this year, and the new Congress next year.
With the election over, Senator Reid presumably will not block a strong White House push for TPA in the lame duck session. House Republicans appear willing to move TPA in the lame duck session, probably as part of a larger piece of legislation like tax extenders. Since a bipartisan TPA bill was negotiated between the House and Senate trade committees before then Finance Chairman Baucus left the Senate to become US Ambassador to China, it is possible to move quickly in the lame duck session if leaders wish to do so.
For TPA to get done in the lame duck session, a lot of things will have to go right. If this window passes, there is a strong case that TPA could be used by the new Republican leadership to show that the new Congress can get things done by passing bipartisan legislation. Incoming Finance Chairman Hatch has indicated his interest in moving TPA quickly. Right now, both the President and the Republican leadership are motivated to appear willing and able to work together. With immigration and other controversial issues looming, a constructive bipartisan environment won’t last forever, but hopefully it can last long enough to pass TPA and facilitate completion of the TPP negotiations.