By Phil Eskeland
Last November, after many months of consideration, South Korea expressed its interest in joining the 12 other Pacific Rim nations in participating in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Almost immediately, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) welcomed Korea’s decision. The aim of the talks is to conclude “an ambitious, comprehensive, and high-standard agreement” on the same level as the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).
Yet, despite Korea’s interest, many hurdles remain. In addition to procedural considerations, there is one large political matter still unresolved – the fate of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), previously known as “fast-track,” for U.S. President Barack Obama. Like previous occupants of the White House, President Obama has requested Congress grant him TPA to conclude not only the TPP talks but also the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) negotiations with Europe.
However, the President has run into opposition from two sources. First, three-quarters of all House Democrats wrote to the President last November in opposition to the “outdated ‘fast-track’ procedures” for the TPP. While House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi did not sign that particular letter, she has since come out against the bipartisan “fast-track” bill introduced by the key Congressional leaders on trade policy, Representative David Camp (R-MI) and then Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). On January 9, 2014, five Democrat Senators who serve on the key Finance Committee that writes trade laws co-signed a letter to USTR Ambassador Michael Froman in opposition to “TPA legislation that resembles the current framework.” Plus, 12 other Democrat Senators co-signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on January 15, 2014, expressing “deep concern” over renewing TPA authority for the President. As a result, Senate Majority Leader Reid, who controls what bills can be considered on the Senate floor, recently said that “I am against fast-track…Everyone would be well advised just not to push this now.”
While the first source of opposition was expected as a growing number of Congressional Democrats have opposed free trade over the past three decades, there is a second source of disagreement emerging from some Republican and conservative circles. Last November, 23 House Republicans wrote to President Obama expressing opposition to “fast track” because of constitutional concerns. There is also growing consensus among many Congressional Republicans that the President has exceeded his constitutional authority on other matters, such as when he determined that the U.S. Senate was out of session in order to fill open positions in the Executive Branch. President Obama has said on several occasions that he is willing act alone without Congress on other issues. Thus, these Members do not trust the President with any additional authority or flexibility.
This could be a replay from TPA debate from 16 years ago. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, where most Republicans believed President Bill Clinton lied under oath, a TPA bill failed to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by a vote of 180 to 243. While 85 percent of House Democrats voted no, nearly one-third of House Republicans also opposed TPA. Thus, TPA was dead for the rest of Clinton Administration. However, the effort to revive TPA in 2002 was successful. Why? While approximately the same percentage of negative votes came from the House Democratic Caucus, only 12 percent of House Republicans this time voted against TPA. There were over 30 House Republicans still in office who switched their votes in favor of TPA in 2002. While the trade issues remained the same, the difference was that President Clinton was no longer in office.
This time, the level of distrust among many House Republicans for a Democrat President has returned, if not grown. Almost every week there is another action in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that reflects the lack of confidence in the Obama Administration to do the will of Congress. Some elements of the conservative Tea Party movement have also come out strongly against TPA based on constitutional concerns. To add a further layer of complication, the same forces from both the left and right side of the political spectrum that derailed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 through Internet protests (i.e., Wikipedia was blacked-out for one day) and jamming the telephone switchboard on Capitol Hill are now aligned against the “secret” TPP talks because they believe the Intellectual Property chapter will require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to police copyright infringements. This is of such serious concern that the SOPA analogy was specifically rebutted as part of Ambassador Froman’s speech before the Center of American Progress (CAP) on the Obama Administration’s new approach to trade policy.
Thus, it is prudent and smart for the Obama Administration to have a goal to complete the TPP talks prior to requesting TPA so that Members of Congress can actually read and understand the agreement they are being asked to vote on. However, the negotiators for the other TPP nations may not be so accommodating, particularly if reaching a deal requires them to make painful concessions to their domestic constituencies.
As a result, it is highly unlikely that either the TPP or the T-TIP talks will conclusively end any time soon until TPA is passed. The earliest Congress will consider TPA will be during the “lame duck” session after the mid-term elections sometime in late November or early December of this year, assuming that there are sufficient changes to the introduced version of the Camp-Baucus legislation to placate the concerns raised by some Members of Congress about the bill. Thus, there is a good chance that Korea will be able to join the TPP talks before they conclude, assuming the other TPP nations raise no objections.
Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Nicholas James’ photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.