June 22 Trade Update – Messy Business of Passing an (Unjust) Trade Bill

By Laura Peralta-Schulte
June 22, 2015

The Obama administration is in the process of negotiating many significant trade agreements with countries around the world.  One such agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with 12 countries accounting for 40% of world GDP, is nearing completion.  All trade agreements are negotiated in secret and informed by an elaborate system of official advisory committees that are overwhelmingly corporate.  That is why current trade agreements, while perhaps sounding good in theory, do not promote the common good.  Voices of all affected people are not included in negotiations.

In order to ease the passage of this and other trade agreements, the administration has asked Congress to pass a bill providing “fast track” trade promotion authority (TPA).  Under fast track, TPP and other agreements will receive what is known as a “privileged vote” meaning that time for debate is limited, the agreement cannot be edited, and Congress has a short period of time in which to conduct a simple yes or no vote.  The fast track bill currently under consideration in Congress provides for this special process for six years, so that this administration as well as the next could use fast track to pass other major agreements. Two such agreements are currently under discussion: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) – between the U.S. and European Union countries – and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – a multilateral service agreement.

On May 22, the Senate passed a fast track trade bill that contained three key provisions. The first provision provides fast trade authority for up to six years, the second provides trade adjustment assistance [TAA] to help workers displaced by the trade bill, and the third makes miscellaneous customs modifications – including an amendment on human trafficking.  That bill was sent to the House for consideration.

House Republicans leaders found that it would be difficult to pass comprehensive trade legislation through their caucus, so they decided to split the Senate bill into three pieces.  All three pieces of legislation had to pass the House to reach the president’s desk.  The most controversial provision for Republicans was providing trade adjustment assistance (TAA); conservative Republicans argue that TAA represents wasteful welfare spending.  The leadership was hoping to pass the fast track and customs provisions with large Republican majorities and believed that Democrats would provide the lion’s share of votes for TAA.   To their surprise, the Democrats and a significant number of Republicans did not support TAA.  TAA was voted down by a large majority, sinking – temporarily at least – passage of the trade bill.

President Obama and the House Republican leadership, backed by the business community, responded with backdoor deals and devised an alternative way to get fast track approved.  The House decided to push through a TPA-only bill and quickly passed it late last week by a vote of 218-208. The measure moves to the Senate tomorrow.  If it is passed, the president will gain fast-track authority to sign the TPP into law.  Tomorrow you will receive a special alert, asking you to tell your Senator to vote NO on fast track, so that you can make justice happen and make the common good, not special interests, the top priority in trade agreements.