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Republican Opposition to “Fast-Tracking” Grows; Obama’s Trade Agenda Threatened

A gathering number of House Republicans have expressed their intention to oppose the renewal of President Obama’s trade promotion authority, a development that could undermine his ability to conclude outstanding trade negotiations.

In 2002, the last time the House of Representatives voted on executive “fast-tracking” authority, a negligible twenty-two out of 222 Republican legislators voted “no.” However, rumors have been circulating that the number opposed continues to grow, maybe as high as sixty, who are worried that President Obama would abuse that trade promotion authority by applying it beyond the scope of its intended powers.

A substantial group of Democrats have already expressed either misgivings about fast-tracking or outright opposition, many of them emboldened by Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) candid criticisms of it. Only hours after President Obama encouraged Congress to renew his authority during his State of the Union address, Reid expressed his misgivings publicly. “I’m against fast track. Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”

The White House responded by attempting to diminish the significance of Reid’s opposition. “Leader Reid has always been clear on his position on this particular issue,” a statement said. However, President Obama stressed the importance of the legislation to successfully implementing his trade agenda, which included the massive twelve-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. “We need to work together on tools like bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA’,” Obama said.

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Trade promotion authority was actually created by Congress in 1974. The point was to streamline the process of treaty negotiating by allowing the president more latitude to settle terms regarding the reduction of foreign tariff and non-tariff barriers to American exports. The additional latitude for presidential authority comes in the form of limitations on congressional oversight: once a president submits a trade agreement under his fast-tracking authority, the majority leaders of both chambers of Congress must introduce the bill on the next day Congress is in session. No member of Congress is permitted to assign an amendment to the agreement. There are strict limitations on the time afforded each chamber for deliberation, depending on the type of trade agreement under consideration, and the bill must receive a simple up or down vote, and will pass by a simple majority.

Many in the apparel community have enthusiastically welcomed the efforts to support the president’s trade promotion authority. “The sooner we restore Trade Promotion Authority, the sooner the United States can restore its credibility in negotiating trade agreements that benefit U.S. workers and create jobs in the United States,” said AAFA Board of Directors Chairman Philip C. Williamson, president, CEO and chairman of Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company.  “Without Trade Promotion Authority, the United States risks leaving trade partners with the sense that our word at the negotiating table isn’t worth anything because the administration and Congress aren’t working in concert. If there is any hope of realizing ambitious outcomes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, we need Trade Promotion Authority now.”

Up until very recently, lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have endorsed the renewal of President Obama’s fast tracking authority. Last month, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) jointly lead the charge in favor of the bicameral proposal. Baucus argues, echoing a gathering consensus in Congress at large, that executive trade promotion authority is essential to the swift conclusion of important trade deals, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Baucus said, “The TPA legislation that we are introducing today will make sure that these trade deals get done, and get done right. TPA legislation is critical to a successful trade agenda. It is critical to boosting U.S. exports and creating jobs, and it’s critical to fueling America’s growing economy.”

The issue of fast-tracking authority is unusual since neither opposition or support has been determined by party affiliation. Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who supports fast-tracking, said, “My guess is you’re going to see a pretty weird coalition at the end of the day.”

Many experts attribute the stalled TPP talks, originally expected to conclude in December, to anxieties among the sovereign participants that, without trade promotion authority, Obama would be unable to make good on whatever promises he delivered. It has been widely reported that the most recent hurdle to an imminent settlement to negotiations is such an anxiety on the part of Japan, whose role in the talks is crucial to an eventual compromise. Japanese authorities worry that Obama no longer has the power to confidently promise congressional approval of any deal he might accept. This concern has only been exacerbated by intense disagreement among U.S. legislators over Obama’s executive trade promotion powers, or his power to expedite trade-related treaties through the process of congressional review.