UPDATED: Fast Track Authority on Trade Agreements Faces Dead End in Congress

UPDATE (01/31/2014):  Opposition to legislation that would grant the president trade promotion authority has escalated since the Camp-Baucus bill was introduced. On Jan. 27, 564 organizations, including Center for Effective Government, sent a letter to members of Congress asking them to reject the Camp-Baucus bill and seek a new form of trade authority. The groups asserted, "After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy." The letter continues, ". . . a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements."

Shortly after the letter was sent, the results of a nationwide, bipartisan survey on trade promotion authority were released, finding that 62 percent of voters oppose fast-track authority for consideration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. 

And despite the president urging Congress to support the Camp-Baucus bill during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has stood up against the bill, saying that he will not bring the bill to the floor for a vote. 

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On Jan. 9, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), joined by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), introduced controversial fast-track legislation, entitled the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014.” Contrary to the bill’s title, the Camp-Baucus proposal is not widely supported by Republicans or Democrats in the House or Senate. The bill was introduced last week without a House Democratic co-sponsor, and Baucus – the president’s nominee for the ambassador to China – is the only Senate Democrat sponsoring the bill. 

Fast-track authority, also commonly referred to as trade promotion authority, grants the president unilateral authority to negotiate and sign a trade agreement and then write implementing legislation to be introduced in Congress under fast-track procedures that require both the House and Senate to hold a vote within 90 days. Although Congress must ultimately approve the implementing legislation by a simple majority vote, fast-track authority bars amendments to the bill in committee or on the floor and limits the amount of time for debate on the House and Senate floors to 20 hours, effectively limiting substantive discussion of the legislation’s content by Congress.

Congress first granted fast-track authority in 1974, which was extended until 1994. According to Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, support for fast-track authority has been declining since the mid-to-late 1990s, with Congress only granting fast-track authority in five of the last eighteen years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed and the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created. President Bill Clinton sought renewed fast-track authority during his second term, but because of bipartisan opposition, he was denied this authority when the House voted against fast-track legislation in 1998. In 2002, under President George W. Bush, Congress renewed fast-track authority until 2007, although the bill only narrowly passed the Republican-controlled House.

During President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, he pledged to replace fast-track.  With negotiations underway for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (also called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), in November 2013, 151 Democrats sent a letter to the president asking him to establish a new mechanism: “A new trade agreement negotiation and approval process that restores a robust role for Congress is essential to achieving U.S. trade agreements that can secure prosperity for the greatest number of Americans, while preserving the vital tenets of American democracy in the era of globalization.” 

But President Obama has come out in support of fast-track authority for TPP and TAFTA, and most recently, the Camp-Baucus bill. The president, trade negotiators, and the bill’s sponsors assert that fast-track authority “. . . is necessary to successfully conclude these negotiations and for Congressional consideration of implementing legislation.” But, given the transparency concerns that have arisen during the TPP and TAFTA negotiations, and the focus on eliminating non-tariff barriers (i.e., regulatory safeguards) in both of these agreements, Congress must not delegate its role over approval of trade agreements to the executive branch.  Rather, it is crucial that all members of Congress be provided access to the text of any agreement and adequate time to debate the implementing legislation to ensure that the agreement does not trade away important public health and environmental protections or send American jobs overseas. 

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