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Talking Trade blog

Defeated again: Understanding the American congress votes on trade


Published 13 June 2015

When the U.S. Senate first rejected the bills on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), I wrote that it may have marked the day the Americans quit leading on trade. Although the Senate subsequently managed to squeak through the necessary authorizations, the votes from the House of Representatives today suggests I was right. Getting the United States to show leadership on trade is somewhere between a tough and an impossible task.

To recap where we are: although the United States has been negotiating multiple trade agreements for years, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR or basically the trade minister) does not formally have trade authority as delegated from Congress.  Under what used to be called fast track and is now known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Congress lets the White House lead on trade.  Congress sets up the parameters for negotiations and expedited procedures for final approvals. 

USTR went ahead with talks in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Promotion (TTIP) “as if” the provisions of TPA were in effect.  The White House had opted not to try for renewal sooner (the last version expired in 2007) because they were not convinced that Congress would view the request favorably in the absence of information about what sorts of agreements were under negotiation.  Therefore, the executive branch decided to negotiate first and seek permission at a later date, when it would be more clear to the legislative branch what sorts of benefits and costs might be on offer.

With the TPP waiting for TPA to close the agreement, it was no longer possible to pretend that authorization was in place.  The other TPP member countries have refused to discuss the most sensitive aspects of the negotiation in the absence of clear authority from Congress to pass the final deal without amendment.

Hence the push to get TPA, starting with the Senate.  The original bill was defeated, only to be resurrected days later. 

The Senate votes set up the challenge for the House now.  If the House version of TPA does not exactly match the Senate’s bill, members from both sides would have to sit down and reconcile the inconsistencies.  The final, combined, bill would have to be voted on again by both bodies.

Given the difficulties in getting TPA, no one wants a situation where members of Congress are forced to vote twice.  Hence, the House version had to match the Senate version exactly.

Which leads us, depressingly, to today’s House votes.  The Senate bill had done two things—it renewed authorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) and granted TPA.  (An earlier post discussed TAA in more detail.)

The House was reluctant to vote on a similar combined bill.  Thus, they split the bill into two halves—first a vote on TAA and then a vote on TPA. 

The TAA bill went down to defeat.  Even Democratic members of the House that are in favor of the idea of assistance for displaced workers voted against TAA renewal.  This bill, many argued, was insufficient for one reason or another.  Republicans that are not fans of TAA at all had to step up and try to push it over the finish line.  But it was not enough as 86 Republican and 40 Democrat yes votes lost to 303 no votes.

Once TAA was defeated, it also spelled the end to TPA.  This is because the House and Senate versions of the bill have to match.  The Senate authorized both TAA and TPA.  Therefore, the House must also have matching legislation in place. 

In a grim attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, House members then proceeded to vote—narrowly—in favor of TPA (219-212).  This looked, to people not familiar with the intricacies of Congress, like a success.

But it is not.  Hence, for the second time in weeks, Congress refused to show leadership on trade. 

What comes next is unclear.  It is possible that the House will figure out a solution to what is again being called a “procedural snafu.”  Maybe sufficient members on both sides of the aisle will reconsider their votes on TAA.  Perhaps the Senate will revote on TPA without TAA or with a different version of TAA that might be acceptable to the House. 

Even if this can be fixed, it means that the TPP may not close as planned.  Chief negotiators were expecting to meet on June 22.  This—at best—now looks optimistic.  The deadlines have always been perilously short. 

Once the immediate crisis is resolved one way or another, it is certainly worth thinking hard about why Congress has twice voted against trade.  (And against the President in spite of a full-court press the likes of which Washington has rarely seen in recent memory.) 

I am on my way to Washington DC and will write another blog post once I’ve had the chance to discuss issues with trade and business experts from the ground.  Perhaps only inside-the-Beltway naval gazers can make sense of what has been happening.  Because much of Asia (at least) has been watching in amazement as American legislators reject what most in this region see as common sense.  Cutting off your nose to spite your face does not seem a sensible policy.

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Dr. Deborah Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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