President Obama is facing some stiff opposition from members of his own party over the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement currently being negotiated. Reuters:
In a letter to President Barack Obama, 151 House Democrats said there had not been enough consultation between the administration and Congress over the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP pact.“Given our concerns, we will oppose ‘fast track’ Trade Promotion Authority or any other mechanism delegating Congress’ constitutional authority over trade policy that continues to exclude us from having a meaningful role in the formative stages of trade agreements and throughout negotiating and approval processes,” the lawmakers said.
Trade deals these days are less about traditional business of free trade—lowering tariffs—than about getting rid of “non-tariff barriers” to trade. Essentially, that means moving towards common regulations so that goods produced under the rules of one country can be consumed in others. For example, EU-US negotiations would try to establish a common framework over car safety so that any cars produced under EU rules could be legally sold anywhere in the US.This quickly gets complicated. Think about pharmaceuticals. Could drugs approved by Japanese or European regulators be made available in the US? How about vice versa? Think about issues like intellectual property—harmonization of these rules across the area of the proposed trade agreements could involve serious changes.As a result, these days trade talks don’t just involve international policies—tariffs are a tax collected at the frontier, and an international agreement to reduce tariffs is conceptually simple and its domestic ramifications are usually fairly limited. But new style trade talks involve much broader commitments and often involve changing a raft of domestic laws—and challenging a raft of domestic interests. They often have very broad policy consequences—like the intellectual property rules proposed as part of the Trans-Pacific trade agreement.Here’s where the debate over the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority comes in. TPA means that Congress agrees to debate any given trade agreement under special rules—the agreements have to be considered as a package deal and cannot be amended. Congress votes them up or down as a package.This is important in giving the US the ability to negotiate trade agreements. Other countries don’t want Congress to get in there and essentially rewrite any trade deal by amending the treaties or adopting them with reservations. They won’t make concessions of their own unless they believe that the US will stand by the concessions it makes in negotiations.This was one thing in the old days when trade talks were mostly about tariffs. But now that the emphasis has shifted to non-tariff barriers, TPA is a much bigger deal. Congress is essentially giving trade negotiators a license to make commitments that involve substantial changes in US domestic policy. TPA does more than facilitate trade negotiations; it transfers power from the legislative to the executive branch.That is problematic for Constitutional theoreticians. And in a very practical sense this is a problem for Congressional representatives. Laws that affect important industries are Congress’ bread and butter. Literally. Laws like that attract lobbyists and campaign contributions. Industry desperately wants influence over bills that affect the basic regulations of their business, so a nice juicy regulatory bill is a kind of ATM for Congressional representatives yielding lots of campaign contributions. TPA shifts all the discretionary power to the White House, however. All those lobbyists that want to influence the content of a trade deal that covers hundreds of industries and issues, will ignore Congress and descend on the executive branch.The move by two-thirds of House Democrats to oppose giving Obama TPA is a revolt against this surrender of power and money to the White House, and it is a sign that the Obamacare rollout among other things has weakened the President’s hold on his own party. Just as we are seeing Democratic senators looking for ways to repeal or amend important features of the health care law, we are seeing House Democrats turning on a key element of the President’s second term agenda.It’s too soon to tell whether these challenges signal a permanently weakened White House, but they are a sign that even as the President slips in the polls, his authority within the political system is being challenged. (Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog this morning declared “a new low for the Obama administration.”) The White House still has some time to reverse these trends and regain momentum in Washington, but as time goes by the danger increases that the inevitable decline in the power of a second term president will combine with unfavorable political developments to relegate the President to lame duck status relatively early in his second term.[Barack Obama photo courtesy of Getty Images]