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U.S. Legislators Express Anxiety, Pessimism Over TPP

As negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) continue to flounder, more U.S. legislators are expressing both their frustration and mounting pessimism.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) considers the prospects of a successful conclusion of the TPP grim. “I basically think the White House knows this is over,” she said to a gathering of reporters, according to Politico. She attributed the free trade agreement’s impasse to the cementing partisan divide over the issue of President Obama’s trade promotion authority, or his power to compel an up-and-down vote in Congress on the TPP without any amendments.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, seconded Slaughter’s doubts. “No complex, economically significant trade agreement has ever been negotiated by any administration and approved by Congress without trade promotion authority,” he said.

The flood gates of criticism regarding executive trade promotion authority, or “fast-tracking,” opened when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vehemently opposed its renewal in January. 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 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 resistance of Japanese trade ministers to the liberalization of its agricultural center. 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.

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Now, 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.

From the perspective of the TPP’s actual composition, the persistent controversy has been distance between the U.S. and Japan over the thorny issue of agricultural reform. The U.S. has insisted that Japan move toward a tariff-free regime under the TPP, but Japan has resisted fully liberalizing its agricultural sector, nominating five product areas as “sacred,” which means effectively taken off the table for negotiation. Problematically, beef and rice are among the areas the U.S. has been equally insistent are, at the very least, open to the possibility of future revision.

The two nations have recently stepped up their efforts to resolve their persistent points of dispute. On March 27, Acting Deputy United States Trade Representative Wendy Cutler met with Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Oe in Washington, D.C. Last January, Froman met with Japanese Minister Takeo Mori in Switzerland with the purpose of designing a roadmap for remaining discussions. Akira Amari, Japan’s TPP Minister, despondently reported that intense negotiations couldn’t close the “fairly big” divide between the squabbling countries. His prognosis was not optimistic. Speaking at a press conference, he said, “We have yet to be able to break the stalemate. We cannot make headway on key items. It seems difficult to make progress on the central part (of the negotiations).”

Until recently, lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have endorsed the renewal of President Obama’s fast tracking authority. Toward the end of 2013, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) jointly lead the charge in favor of the bicameral proposal. Baucus argued, 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.”

Froman recently communicated his concern regarding the consequences of the TPP discussions ultimately failing. “If we sit on the sidelines and don’t fulfill our leadership role in this effort, others will help define the rules for us, and that will put our workers and our firms very much at a disadvantage,” Froman told Congress.