In a move that could prove devastating to President Obama’s trade agenda, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposed the renewal of trade promotion legislation, often referred to as “fast tracking authority.”
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.
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.”
For the most part, 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.”
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 part 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.
The issue of fast track authority, until recently, has only lurked inconspicuously in the background, taking a back seat to more contentious issues like the role of Vietnam, the yarn-forward rule and the minimization of duties. But the prospect of the TPP’s nearing settlement has brought it to the foreground. This important issue has largely been neglected by the mainstream media, partly because its complexity makes it resistant to brief description. However, since the TPP is seen by many to be a historically significant trade agreement, and its passage could conceivably be frustrated by a full-frontal attack on executive trade promotion authority, disentangling its messy threads is a necessary task.
Tony Fratto, a former U.S. Treasury official under George W. Bush, opined that the Reid’s attack on fast-tracking authority could have debilitating consequences for pending trade agreements. He said, “Harry Reid’s decision to block these deals cripples America’s historic role as the global leader in advancing free trade, and it is a personal embarrassment to the president.”