A coalition of business groups is pushing congress to pass legislation that will make it easier for the U.S. to enter into free trade agreements.
The coalition, led by the Business Roundtable, has been approaching lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since May urging them to pass the Trade Promotion Authority.
“It’s a really important opportunity for Congress to act sooner, rather than later,” said David Thomas, VP of Trade Policy at the Roundtable. “It strengthens our negotiators hands and empowers congress to set goals and objectives for policy.”
The law gives the executive branch more authority to negotiate trade policy, while allowing Congress to set out mandates for what can be achieved in trade policy.
The U.S. is in the midst of negotiations for three major trade agreements, two of which could be adopted in the next year. Getting TPA passed, Thomas said, will help the administration to strike better deals for the economy.
“There’s urgency for congress to pass TPA legislation because it empowers Congress to set roadmaps and then foreign negotiators, foreign partners, know that US negotiators have clear instructions on key priorities,” Thomas said.
The legislation has met stern resistance from Democrats, as well as a small coalition of Republicans. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) and Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) penned a letter to President Obama asking him not to sign the “outdated” legislation. More than 150 House Democrats signed it.
“In light of the broad scope of today’s trade agreements, it is even more vital that Congress have a fulsome role in shaping these pacts’ terms,” the letter says. “Given our concerns, we will oppose ‘Fast Track’ Trade Promotion Authority or any other mechanism delegating Congress’ constitutional authority over trade policy that continues to exclude us from having a meaningful role in the formative stages of trade agreements and throughout negotiating and approval processes.”
Thomas shares the Democrats concerns that trade policy should adapt to the current economic environment, but said that blocking TPA would only further hinder U.S. negotiating efforts. TPA was first passed in 1974 and was renewed several times before it expired in 2002.
“It’s important to update the negotiating objectives in the 2002 law because a lot’s changed in the global marketplace. There are many new challenges for businesses, from protecting intellectual property to competing with state-owned enterprises and ensuring the flow of data across borders,” Thomas said.
The coalition has been working to educate lawmakers on trade policy, paying special attention to lawmakers who were elected after 2002. The group has circulated a fact sheet rebutting the “myth” trumpeted by TPA opponents that the law is executive overreach into legislative power to set treaty and trade policy.
“TPA does not cede to the President the ability to set U.S. trade negotiating objectives and decide whether trade agreements meet Congressional priorities for international trade,” the sheet says. “The United States becomes a party to a trade agreement and is legally bound under the agreement only after Congress votes to approve the agreement.”
Thomas said the group is not fighting any new battles in the latest dispute over free trade agreements. Trade unions and Democratic allies have voiced increasing opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal between the U.S. and more than a dozen countries. Those arguments have been around since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, according to Thomas.
“Many of those Democrats who signed the letter have been longtime opponents of trade for various reasons,” he said. “We have a good foundation of bipartisan support for free trade and trade agreements.”
Congress is unlikely to take up the TPA before its January recess, but the bill is expected to go to committee in early 2014.