The TPP Education Project, Preface: Questions of "Fast Track", "Secret Deal" and NAFTA

This article begins a multi-part series aimed at providing education and facts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently under negotiation by the United States and 11 other countries on both sides of the Pacific. With so much hair-on-fire hacktivist mumbo jumbo out there about it, it is essential that we set the record straight. For each part of the series, we will focus on one concentration.

Ground Rules:

The community of commenters are welcome to enhance the value of this project by asking questions, providing additional information, and analyzing the information provided. Since at the time of this writing no official copy of the TPP is available, information should be obtained from as close to "original source" as possible - e.g. the US Trade Representative's statement of what the US is seeking, and if using terms from the law or other trade agreements, citing the full law or trade agreement is desirable to the degree that it is possible. What we will not allow to happen is the very hair-on-fire madness we are trying to diffuse.

Today's Concentration: Preface on the Myths Surrounding the TPP

As the preface piece of the project, I want to concentrate today's piece on a group of myths, misnomers and misinformative terms being used to scare individuals about the TPP. Chief among them is fearmongering about "fast track" trade authority, the notion that TPP is a "secret" deal, and  "what about NAFTA???". It is important to clear our understanding of these myths in order to begin to understand what the TPP is shaping up to be.

Fast Track/ Trade Promotion Authoirty: Okay, let's talk about "fast track". Fast track trade authority is the idea that after a president negotiates a trade agreement, Congress must vote on the whole thing up or down. No amendments, no stall tactics, no death in committee. And that's the part being used to scare people the most.

What most people don't realize is that this authority, formally known as Trade Promotion Authority, is anything but fast. This was pointed out during a Organizing for America policy call with David Shimas, the White House Deputy Senior Advisor for Communications and Strategy, and sure enough, he's correct. The so-called "fast track" authority gives Congress up to 90 whole days to vote up or down on a trade pact.

If the President transmits a fast track trade agreement to Congress, then the majority leaders of the House and Senate or their designees must introduce the implementing bill submitted by the President on the first day on which their House is in session. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(c)(1).) Senators and Representatives may not amend the President’s bill, either in committee or in the Senate or House. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(d).) The committees to which the bill has been referred have 45 days after its introduction to report the bill, or be automatically discharged, and each House must vote within 15 days after the bill is reported or discharged. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(e)(1).)

In the likely case that the bill is a revenue bill (as tariffs are revenues), the bill must originate in the House (see U.S. Const., art I, sec. 7), and after the Senate received the House-passed bill, the Finance Committee would have another 15 days to report the bill or be discharged, and then the Senate would have another 15 days to pass the bill.

In most cases, trade agreements are in some way or another revenue measures, which means that the House would get 60 days to consider the agreement (45 days for the committee and 15 days thereafter for the vote). The Senate would get another 30 (15 each for the committee and between being discharged for committee and a floor vote). Keep this 90-day figure in mind as it will come in handy in the next section.

Fine, you say, so Congress has time. But why make Congress vote up or down? Why not allow the normal legislative process to modify the agreement? For one thing, it's much harder for the president to negotiate any international agreements if Congress gets to introduce new parts to it or remove things from it, and trade is no different. Congress already has a bigger say in trade matters than any other international treaties - which cannot be modified and need be ratified by only the Senate. The Constitution gives Congress control jurisdiction over trade matters, however, and as such they have a bigger say.

Congress can vote agreements down if they wish, but allowing Congress to effectively renegotiate trade deals might as well mean that we do not have any more trade deals - though, I suspect many who oppose TPA are ultimately shooting for this very outcome.

It is a mistake to assume, however, that Trade Promotion Authority gives the president a nearly-blank check where his actions are constrained only by the total votes he thinks an agreement, unaltered, can muster in the House and the Senate. Congress often imposes within the grant of authority itself requirements that direct the president's actions when negotiating. Even the Trade Promotion Authority provided in the Trade Act of 2002 - passed by a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican House - required the president to submit a labor rights report including child labor records of possible trade partners, and even to  meet with a Congressional Oversight Group at their request before initiating trade negotiations.

The lack of a TPA may also mean some unintended consequences that liberals have not considered. What if the current majority decided to insert a global gag rule on abortions into trade agreements, for example? I reiterate, negotiation by Congress is death by Congress when it comes to international dealmaking.

If liberals wish to truly influence the development of the TPP, they should focus their efforts in shaping the Trade Promotion Authority legislation in Congress rather than promoting the absurd notion that Congress and not the president ought to be conducting negotiations with foreign governments. Perhaps they can look at why economists serving presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, including the much-celebrated Berkeley economist Christina Romer who suggested a $1.8 trillion of government spending to fill the output gap during the Great Recession, a number liberals routinely give Obama grief for not picking to fight for, recommended to Congress the passage of TPA.

"If it's so good, why is it all hush-hush?"

A dumber question I have never heard. When was the last time international negotiations of any kind were conducted on C-Span? That's right, never. This idea that unless all the meetings are being live-streamed and every piece of email and notes by the negotiators is being tweeted the whole thing is a secretive campaign to usher in corporatocracy and penetrate the average person with a hard object in the rectum is plain stupid.

While Congress is regularly informed, the agreement isn't public because it isn't yet signed. Period, dot, end of story.

One also wishes that the detractors were spending as much time reading the official information that is available as they are whining that not enough is. You know, there is this whole section on the US Trade Representative's website about the official position of the United States and what the US seeking in the TPP, for example. It details everything from an issue-by-issue coverage to an outline of the agreement to stakeholder engagement events. But hey, who has time to read when you have flammable hair to torch and cash to raise?

BUT BUT. BUT. BUUUUUT. The whole thing isn't available. NOOOOOWWW. WHYYY NOTTTT??? See above. THEY'LL PASS IT UNDER THE COVER OF DARKNESSSSSSS!!!!

Remember earlier in the article I asked you to keep that 90-day figure handy? Jog your memory and revive it now. Once the agreement is signed by the president, even assuming Congress has by then passed the Trade Promotion Authority, there are going to be up to 90 days Congress will have to vote on the TPP and make it final (or vote it down) after the president transmits it to Congress, (which isn't like sending an email, you understand).

That's a potential 90 days for which the whole agreement will be public, and given this Congress' pace, it will take longer rather than shorter. Read it then, dissect it, get on your Congressman's case if there's something horrendously wrong with it. This is not going to happen in the blink of an eye with a bill that no one will get to see. The incessant nagging about this is tantamount to what the Republicans did about the health care bill. Stop it. Stop it now.

What about NAFTA?

What about NAFTA? For those advocating for the undermining the TPP "because NAFTA", will NAFTA cease to exist if the TPP doesn't become reality? In fact, the exact opposite is true. The Trans-Pacific Partnership fulfills the President's campaign promise of re-negotiating NAFTA to make labor and environmental provisions core, enforceable parts of our trade deals rather than safe-to-ignore side pacts - a promise the Left has thoroughly pulped the president for not (thus far) keeping.

Well, he's keeping it now.

To understand, let's begin with the list of countries that are to be part of the TPP: The United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

The US, Mexico and Canada are also the three countries that are party to NAFTA. As such, TPP would replace conflicting provisions of NAFTA as the countries enter a new agreement. As I indicated in a piece yesterday, key to that renegotiation is in fact the president's principled stand to make fair labor and clean environment standards as vital to American trade pacts as foreign investment.

If progressives truly want a chance to uproot NAFTA's unfairness, the TPP is our chance to do so. Or, we can choose to force inaction, leaving NAFTA no better. Our choice.

Now, a question of my own...

I want to conclude today's preface with a question of my own. Why is the sole focus on the trade agreement being negotiated with Asian and South and Central American countries when there is also a similar agreement involving more than twice as many countries involved also being negotiated with European nations? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is being negotiated between the US and the European Union. In fact, the statements of principle with regards to the TTIP is less absolute than the administration's position on the TPP. Yet the focus of the high-horse crowd is entirely on the Asian/Central-South American partnership.

So what, might I ask, given the fact that the Administration is seeking as good if not better terms on labor and the environment from its Asian (and other transpacific) partners as it is with our European ones, suddenly makes the Asian and Central and South American partnership a dark blight? It wouldn't happen to do with that "motherland" thing we have going on with a certain continent and a certain color of skin, would it? I mean, nah. Left's ideologues would never display racism or xenophobia, would they? Nah.



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