Fast-track agreement sets stage for congressional trade battle

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, April 16, 2015 - The battle is on in Congress to approve a fast-track process for finalizing trade agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union.

Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Thursday announced agreement on a three-year Trade Promotion Authority bill meant to ensure an up-or-down vote on new trade deals, and a separate 10-year bill extending trade adjustment assistance for workers, businesses and farmers harmed by imports.

The 113-page TPA bill includes provisions, carried over from legislation that died in the last Congress, meant to help the U.S. biotech industry, dairy producers and other agricultural exporters to fight barriers to their products.

Together we can feed the Bees" New to the TPA bill this year are some provisions meant to win over skeptical Democrats and GOP conservatives. The provisions would ensure details of the agreements are made public months before Congress votes on them, and the measure also provides a new process for stripping an agreement of its fast-track process. TPA is critical to negotiating trade deals because it prevents Congress from amending the final language.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the TPA bill assures “middle-class trade policies that will heighten transparency, expand economic opportunity, and create good jobs here at home.”

The TPA and TAA bills, the latter a top priority for Democrats, are designed to move in tandem. Wyden said he has a deal with Ryan to ensure that the House votes on both on the same day.

The TPA bill is headed for an especially tough fight in the House, which will challenge President Obama's ability to woo Democratic support.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said the TPA bill would likely fail, citing House Speaker John Boehner's suggestion that he needs support from at least 50 House Democrats.

“It will have a much harder time in the House than in the Senate,” Sherman said. “This bill puts all the power in the White House, and that is not something that a lot of Republicans or constitutionalists will support.”

The AFL-CIO announced plans for an anti-TPA ad campaign targeting 16 senators and 36 House member. The campaign will begin with digital ads and may expand into TV, radio and newspaper ads.

Lawmakers from farm states and agricultural House districts will be counted as a bedrock of support.

Critical to agribusiness, the bill details a number of negotiating objectives that the administration is supposed to address in the proposed agreements, including a provision requiring countries to have a “science-based justification” for any food safety and agricultural regulations that exceed international standards.

The legislation also seeks to bar the “improper use” of geographical indications, the regional names such as Parmesan cheese that European cheese producers have tried to protect.

How successful the provisions turn out to be depends on what U.S. negotiators can get in concessions in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In appearances before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged to try to curb restrictions on biotechnology and the use of geographical indications.

Vilsack said the administration would “continue to negotiate very hard” to prevent individual EU countries from blocking use of approved biotech products.

Said Froman: “We're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics."

The TPP deal is believed to be mostly wrapped up except for key disputes with Japan and Canada over their barriers to agricultural commodities and with Japan over autos.

Vilsack told Wyden that there was “no question” that the TPP deal would boost agricultural exports.

The keys to getting Wyden's support for TPA included the 10-year extension of trade adjustment assistance, which will be extended to service workers for the first time, and the provisions on transparency and the new process for short-circuiting the fast-track process. 

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Under the TPA bill, the president would be required to publish the details of an agreement at least 60 days before it is signed. As a practical matter that means the text could be publicly available for at least four months before Congress votes on the implementing legislation, since there is an economic analysis that also must be completed, according to congressional aides.

The process for stripping a trade agreement of its fast-track process would occur if a committee votes down the implementing bill. That vote would trigger consideration of a separate resolution ending the fast-track procedure for the agreement. The process is meant to guarantee that a president is sensitive to the concerns of lawmakers.

Supporters of the president's trade agenda are counting on the new provisions to ensure the passage of TPA. “By having a framework for participating in the process and clearly identified priorities, Congress increases its influence over these agreements as they are being written,” said Tom Suber, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on the TPA and TAA bills next week.


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