Lawmakers Eager to Get Secretive Trade Agreement Moving

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to reignite momentum on a trade deal with several Pacific Rim nations after it faced major hurdles earlier this year.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) involves 12 countries ranging from Chile to New Zealand and Malaysia. The TPP would link an area with about $28 trillion in annual economic output, making it the largest trade agreement ever signed by the United States.

The agreement hit a major roadblock in Congress last month when a large bipartisan group in Congress expressed concerns over the negotiating process.

The Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Caucus, officially launched in October, represents a counter-attack to the growing tide of anti-TPP sentiment. The four co-chairs of the caucus include two Democrats and two Republicans: Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Charles W. Boustany (R-La.), and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).

Two of the co-chairs, Boustany and Reichert, talked this month about the trade agreement at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Both expressed their belief that the TPP would be good for their constituents and for the nation in general.

Boustany and Reichert also seemed optimistic about the chances of getting Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which would allow the Obama administration to negotiate the TPP without worrying about Congress making any changes.

Fast-track legislation – also known as Trade Promotion Authority  – is the process by which Congress allows the president to negotiate trade deals and pledges to approve them swiftly without amendments or delays. This empowers the executive branch to negotiate trade agreements with foreign partners without them worrying the deal will be undermined or renegotiated by congressional pressure.

Free trade agreements are notoriously difficult to get through Congress. For example, the U.S. and South Korea signed a trade agreement in 2007. But after a series of revisions to make the agreement more palatable, the deal did not come into effect until March 2012.

President Obama is seeking TPA, which officially ended in 2007, to promote the TPP and another trade agreement currently in the early stages of negotiations with the European Union.

Reichert, a former SWAT team commander, said supporters of the TPP will have to be more assertive to get the deal through Congress.

“You got to know when to negotiate and when to kick the door in,” he said. “And you know, when it comes to trade, we might have to kick the door in somewhere along the line here.”

The TPP has faced criticism due to its secretive process. The draft texts of the treaty are not publicly available, and even members of Congress do not have access to all documents.

Many industry advisers, however, have access to the drafts. These advisers represent several business sectors, such as the pharmaceutical industry groups, the record industry, and firms like Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric.

Many copyright and Internet freedom activists have criticized a leaked chapter on intellectual property laws, saying elements of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) have been slipped into the trade agreement.

With all the bad publicity surrounding the TPP, Reichert said getting Congress to support the deal will require “all hands on deck.” He said the administration would need to coordinate a pro-TPP push in all relevant departments, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office.

Both lawmakers noted many members of Congress have not voted for TPA before, so there is “a lack of understanding” about the authority.

“There's a lot of misinformation being circulated among members of Congress about what trade promotion authority really is. Some think it may be an abridgment of Congress's authority. There's some who think there are sovereignty issues, so there's a lot of various misinformation out there,” Boustany said.

“We have to embark on a very strong educational process to get this done,” he added.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has come out against giving the president fast-track authority.

Last month, 22 Republicans in the House of Representatives sent a letter to Obama saying they were “strong supporters of American trade expansion” but would not support handing over negotiating authority to the president on constitutional grounds.

In a separate letter, 151 Democrats led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) also wrote to the president to express their opposition to fast-track legislation.

Boustany noted the TPP is a much larger multilateral deal, which makes it proportionally more difficult to pass, even compared to the last two multilateral agreements signed by the country – CAFTA and NAFTA. He said the consultative process is critical to enlist the support of members of Congress and show them how their districts would benefit from the trade deal.

“We're going to devote a lot of our time and effort to building the consensus to make this happen,” Boustany said.

Reichert said the TPP caucus is planning to send a letter to the president asking for a meeting with the four chairs of the group.

“We're going to meet with the president,” Reichert said. “We want to tell him how important this is. We want to tell him how much support we have in Congress.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. and the other TPP members announced they would miss a self-imposed year-end deadline to finalize the agreement. In a joint statement by trade ministers attending four days of talks in Singapore, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said work on the agreement will resume in a few weeks.