Achieving Trade Promotion Authority Will Require a Heavy Lift from the President

  • Jan 23, 2014

    Most observers agree the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement will be tough to conclude because of the high-standard, comprehensive nature of the 12-country accord and the diversity of negotiating partners, ranging from highly developed Japan to lower-income Vietnam. Some U.S. partners in the negotiations are reluctant to close the talks without assurances that a deal with the United States will stick and will not be picked apart by Congress.

    Officials from TPP negotiating countries, from Mexico to Japan and Vietnam, say it will be difficult for them to make significant concessions on issues such as market access until the U.S. president demonstrates that he has the support of a majority in Congress. Before wrapping up the agreement, U.S. partners want to understand that the administration can conclude a deal without having Congress demand that negotiators reopen talks on issues such as intellectual property rights and labor and environmental standards.

    That is why President Barack Obama needs Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to achieve the key economic plank of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Congressional leaders have introduced bipartisan legislation in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to renew TPA, but to get it past the post will require a hefty dose of leadership, patience, and all-around goodwill.

    Congress will only manage to pass TPA with effective, consistent, and high-profile leadership from the president. While many members of Congress say that every president deserves TPA, no House member or senator believes advancing TPA will bolster his or her chances for reelection in November, when the full House and a third of the Senate will be up for grabs. In fact, many members of Congress would prefer never to cast a vote relating to the TPP to avoid criticism from voters who fear that free trade agreements export jobs overseas.

    TPA will become a priority in Congress only if the president makes it one. He must begin to make a strong public case for his trade agenda, the TPP, and its role in boosting the U.S. economy and U.S. ties with the most dynamic region of the world, beginning with next week’s State of the Union address. And he will have to keep repeating this call for TPA in speeches, including in the heartland of the country, until the bill is passed and he hosts a signing ceremony.

    The president must convince Congress that the TPP is a critical component of his strategy of engaging Asia. He needs to spell out the economic benefits of more open trade and investment and updated rules of commercial engagement with this high-growth region because it will tie the United States to a part of the world that is critical to both U.S. economic growth and security. The TPP’s potential is attracting attention from others, like China, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, who want to make sure they are not left out of moves in the region toward greater economic integration.

    The president must make clear to Congress that delaying moves to ratify TPA and complete the TPP could hurt Washington’s economic strategy and objectives in Asia. The drive toward regional economic integration is charging ahead in the Asia Pacific with or without the United States through vehicles like ASEAN+3, which includes China, Japan, and Korea, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an arrangement composed of the 10 ASEAN countries as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. U.S. economic and strategic interests in the Asia Pacific are too important for TPA, and thus the TPP, to get delayed by squabbling in Washington.

    Obama’s arguments must address the free trade skeptics in his own Democratic Party. The president needs to articulate why the Republicans, who will supply the lion’s share of votes for TPA, should work with him on trade. And this message needs to be reinforced by speeches and congressional testimony by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer, and other cabinet members. Any hesitation or lack of consistent messaging from the president and his team will strengthen the opposition and communicate a lack of seriousness to allies who wonder why they should put serious market access offers on the table before the president has the authority from Congress to complete the agreement. 

    The last time TPA was enacted, in 2002, the congressional legislative process took 10 months to complete. This time may be different, but advocates need to work patiently to address concerns and build support. U.S. trade policy has a much larger effect on the lives of Americans today than it did in 1974, 1988, or even 2002. 

    Voting on TPA is made more complicated today because most current members of Congress were not serving the last time TPA legislation was debated. Members of Congress will have much to say about issues like consultation beyond the committees of jurisdiction, and a winning coalition will not be formed overnight. Support for the legislation will need to be built one member at a time.

    Partisan rivalry has reached a new high in Washington and will only increase as elections in November draw closer. But trade policy finds majority support in the political center. So far, the legislative process for TPA has been careful and centrist. It will need an outsized dose of goodwill to stay that way. TPA is essentially an agreement that cements cooperation between Congress and the administration. Members of Congress will need to take the long view to get past suspicions and concerns, and the president will need to choose cooperation over confrontation and pursue high-level, consistent engagement and prodding if the efforts to achieve TPA are to succeed.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the January 23, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

    Scott Miller holds the William M. Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

    is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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