By Phil Eskeland
Last month, the U.S. Senate experienced the ups and downs of passing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for the President. Initially, the first procedural vote to that allowed TPA to be debated on the Senate floor failed but then 48 hours later, 13 votes switched and the Senate was able to proceed. Eventually, after debating and voting on several amendments, the Senate passed the Trade Act of 2015 on May 22, 2015, by a bipartisan vote of 62 to 37.
Now, the House of Representatives is experiencing the topsy-turvy ride otherwise known as trade politics. While the Senate Republican leadership combined TPA with the reauthorization of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program in the Trade Act of 2015 to help smooth passage in the more collegial Senate, this action made passage of this legislation more difficult in the House. As mentioned in a previous blog post, a majority of House Republicans previously voted against renewing TAA in 2011 as part of a bill to extend certain U.S. trade preference laws. However, every House Democrat voted for TAA, which enabled the passage of the trade preference bill in 2011, and, indirectly, the three other free trade agreements (FTAs), including the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) FTA, that were under consideration at the time.
To deal with this problem during the current debate, the House Republican leadership split the Trade Act of 2015 in half to give Members the opportunity to independently vote on TAA and TPA separately (otherwise known in parliamentary-speak as “dividing the question”). It was expected that the TAA portion of the bill would pass the House with the support primarily from Democrats and the TPA section of the Trade Act of 2015 would pass with the support primarily from Republicans. Then, after both sections passed independently, the resolution governing the parameters of the House floor debate on the Trade Act of 2015 (otherwise known as the “rule”) would automatically recombine the sections together and then send the bill to the President for his expected signature without needing to involve the Senate any longer.
However, even before these votes took place, the House needed to pass the rule on the Trade Act of 2015 that allowed this parliamentary procedure to play out. Normally, passage of the rule in the House governing any floor debate is a perfunctory matter because the resolution passes on a party-line vote. Every Member serving in the majority is told at the beginning of each Congress that he or she must vote for every rule even if the Member disagrees with the substance of the bill under consideration; otherwise, the House Speaker and the Majority Leader lose control of the House floor and the debate and amendment process is turned over to the minority. Every Member serving in the minority is given the opposite advice – he or she must vote against every rule even if the Member agrees with the underlying bill; otherwise, attempts to further amend a bill or expand debate would be for naught. Thus, it was surprising that the vote on the rule yesterday was so close. In fact, the vote was held open for 35 minutes (about twice as long as normal) and the vote was tied at 206 to 206 for several minutes because 34 House Republicans, who are in the majority, defied their political party to oppose the rule. It took the vote of eight pro-trade House Democrats serving in the minority to also defy their party to pass the rule for this parliamentary strategy to pass TPA and TAA. Thus, the rule barely passed the House by a vote of 217 to 212.
Nevertheless, the surprising twist in this debate was the decision by most House Democrats to oppose TAA. Most House Democrats voted against TAA not on substance but as a tactic to defeat TPA because they calculated a majority of House Republicans would also vote against renewing TAA for other reasons. If TAA was defeated, then TPA could be dead for the rest of the Obama Administration. Initially, some House Democrats opposed the TAA provision in the Trade Act of 2015 because of the budgetary offset used to “pay for” the additional government spending associated with the extension of this program. But to respond to this concern, the House Republican leadership devised yet another parliamentary tactic to swap out the objectionable offset for TAA with another more acceptable budgetary saving and then included the new offset in yet another bill that extended certain U.S. trade preference laws. Nonetheless, despite a rare appearance of President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill earlier this morning to personally appeal to his fellow Democrats to support this legislative strategy, most Democrats still voted against TAA as a tactic to stall TPA. So, the TAA portion of the Trade Act of 2015 went down to stinging defeat by a bipartisan margin of 126 to 302 because an overwhelming majority of both House Democrats and Republicans voted against TAA for widely different reasons.
Nonetheless, the House still proceeded with the vote on the TPA portion of the Trade Act of 2015. Subsequently, TPA passed the House by a narrow margin of 219 to 211, garnering the support of 191 Republicans and 28 Democrats. This is a remarkable accomplishment, considering a previous attempt to pass TPA for a Democrat President by a Republican Congress failed in 1998, the massive distrust many Congressional Republicans have for President Obama, and the pressure by some conservative groups to oppose TPA.
Then, Speaker John Boehner made a rare appearance on the House floor to make a motion to have a re-vote on the TAA portion of the Trade Act of 2015 at some point in the future. Unless the House Republican leadership is able to persuade either most of their rank and file members to switch their vote on TAA (near two-thirds of House Republicans voted against TAA) or convince the Senate Republican leadership to hold a stand-alone vote just on TPA (not coupled with TAA), President Barack Obama’s request for TPA may be dead for the rest of his time in office. As mentioned yesterday’s blog post, if TPA legislation cannot make it to the President’s desk for his signature, it will send yet another unfortunate signal to the rest of the world that Washington is completely dysfunctional – even when a Democrat President and a Republican Congress agree on something, they still can’t get anything major done.
What does this mean for Korea? Because nations engaged in trade talks with the U.S. will not reveal their politically sensitive “bottom line” in negotiations until they receive assurances that the trade agreement will not be picked apart by 535 Members of the U.S. Congress, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks may lag into the next presidential administration unless Speaker Boehner is able to pull off a miracle in the next few weeks. This can be either a stumbling block or an opportunity for Korea to join the TPP. If Korea delays its decision until the text of the TPP agreement is finalized, then Korea will have to wait much longer to join the TPP. If Korea decides to try to join as an original founding member, the delay in granting TPA to the President may give Korea an unexpected opportunity to make this request. The ball is in Korea’s court.
Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Speaker John Boehner’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.