Trans-Pacific Partnership: Obama Asks Congress to ‘Fast-Track’ Controversial Trade Deal


Gilberto Flores
National Beat Reporter

President Obama has been trying to sell Congress and the American people on supporting the proposed regulatory and investment treaty known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The United States Senate is voting on a “fast track” bill that would grant Obama expanded authority to negotiate the terms of the TPP. This would allow the Obama administration to negotiate the terms of the deal and present it to Congress for a simple yes or no vote, without amendments from lawmakers.

The TPP is a major trade agreement between the United States and 11 other countries along the Pacific Rim region, including Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, and Australia. The deal has been met with a lot of controversy surrounding the secrecy of the negotiations, the details of the potential final treaty, and its impact on such issues as the environment, agriculture, the economy, intellectual property, and labor standards, among others.

The treaty would tie together the economies of the 12 Asian-Pacific nations. The U.S. already does nearly $2 trillion in trade with these countries each year, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s trade, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. The 12 countries together also account for around 40 percent of global GDP. The deal would do a variety of things, but primarily it is expected to reduce trade barriers among these countries and lower tariffs on goods such as rice, textiles, and cars.

Access to these markets, the Obama administration argues, will increase opportunities for U.S. businesses and will drive long-term economic growth throughout the region.

One main way the Administration argues this will work is through supporting more jobs domestically by allowing U.S. businesses to sell more goods abroad. Exports supported 11.7 million American jobs in 2014—an increase of 1.8 million since 2009, according to the White House.

Obama is now urging Congress to pass legislation that would grant him an expanded negotiating power formally referred to as Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track” authority. This allows the President to send his representatives to work out a deal with negotiating countries, often in closed door negotiations. The completed trade deal package would then be brought before Congress for a simple yay or nay vote with next to no opportunities for congressional interference.

Supporters of the fast tracking bill argue that foreign countries would otherwise be more wary about negotiating with the U.S. because Congress would be able to keep changing the details of the deal by tacking on amendments.

Opponents argue that fast tracking would undermine the legislative process by forcing Congress to vote on a massive trade deal it had no part in forming.

Fast tracking isn’t anything new. Congress approved “fast-track” legislation in 1974, granting presidents the authority to negotiate trade deals and then present those deals to Congress for a vote. However, the authority has since expired. Obama wants the current Congress to renew it this year so that he can wrap up both TPP and a similar trade package involving the European Union.

Last month, the Senate Finance Committee approved the fast track legislation to go the floor of the Senate for debate. But as of Tuesday, May 12, Senate Democrats have stalled a debate on the bill.

In an unusual political twist, Republicans in Congress have found themselves supporting the President and the TPP, while the main pushback Obama faces has come from several Democrats and Tea Party Republicans.

Opponents (mainly environmentalists, union members, and consumer advocates) dislike what they see as lenient environmental and labor standards and a special tribunal that would be formed to settle disputes between corporations and foreign governments.

These tribunals are a main point of contention for the deal’s opponents, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has been a vocal and vehement opponent of the TPP. She has publicly derided the TPP for the nature of the deal’s secret closed door negotiations. She and other hard line liberals accuse the TPP of essentially being a big “corporate giveaway” that overrides environmental regulations and financial protections set up under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. They argue that the deal only serves to help businesses and their bottom lines while doing very little to protect American workers and wages.

“This deal would give protections to international corporations that are not available to United States environmental and labor groups,” said Warren back in February. “Multinational corporations are increasingly realizing this is an opportunity to gut U.S. regulations they don’t like.”

But Obama’s overall rationale for pushing for the TPP, a key part of the Administration’s trade agenda, along with the fast track authority is much more rooted in the big picture.

The U.S. economy has been recovering steadily since the recession. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the private sector has added 12.3 million jobs over 62 straight months, the longest streak of private sector job growth on record. The latest jobs report demonstrates the economy is continuing to grow, but at a much more moderate rate.

The Obama administration is seeking to invigorate the labor market to try to keep the economy going. With a Republican-controlled Congress and the Federal Reserve on the verge of raising interest rates due to the improvement in the economy, the Administration must look to other, more reliable sources of economic stimulus. They argue that this leaves U.S. exports as an alternative tool to create more jobs.

The growing concern over environmental protections, effects on financial regulations, and the overall secrecy that the TPP is enveloped in all continue to raise public concern over the true nature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.