Why Are Senate Republicans So Eager To Cede Their Trade Authority To Obama?

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Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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Republican senators are busy assuring their skeptical colleagues and the public that trade promotion authority (TPA) does not give the president more power, even though it’s designed to “fast-track” future trade deals by changing Senate rules.

“There’s a great deal of kind of fuzzy thinking and misinformation about this that we’re seeing,” Republican Rep. Tom McClintock told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And this is sad, because TPA is not some sort of new power, and it doesn’t add authority to the president. It restricts authority.”

TPA allows Congress to define specific objectives the president must work toward in any future deal, and require by law a more transparent and public debate, rather than the current system that allows the president to negotiate any deal he wants.

But once the president submits a deal to Congress, TPA severely restricts the Senate’s ability to block the deal by forcing a vote without the chance for amendments or long debate. It also lowers the threshold from 61 votes to 51 votes. (Fast Tracking Lets President Hide Details Of Trade Deals)

Supporters say that’s necessary to get trading partners on board in negotiations, but critics contend its a reckless concession of Senate power to the legislative branch.

“Fast-track is a system where, for six years, Congress gives up the power to amend or fully debate legislation, and pre-agrees to expedite vast global agreements that have never been made public,” a GOP congressional aide told TheDCNF. (Senate Jumps Dem Hurdle To Move On Trade Promotion Authority)

Here are three arguments for and against trade promotion authority, and the facts behind them, with help from the Congressional Research Service.

1. Congress defines the parameters of the trade agreement.

TPA contains a number of negotiating objectives defined by Congress, which the president is technically required to meet when negotiating future trade deals. The objectives cover a number of trade areas and include goals such as reduced tariffs for U.S. exports and requiring participating countries to adhere to international labor law standards.

Some argue that’s a huge improvement and a transfer of power from the president, but others contend the objectives are so broadly defined they are essentially meaningless. For example, the principal negotiating objective for trade in services is “to expand competitive market opportunities for United States services and to obtain fairer and more open conditions of trade … by reducing or eliminating barriers to international trade in services …”

Immigration hardliner Sen. Jeff Sessions sees that as a window for the president to increase the number of temporary foreign workers under the concept that limiting guest workers constitutes a barrier to trade in services.

2. If the president doesn’t play by the rules, Congress can withdraw the deal from fast-track.

To be eligible for fast-track consideration, a trade deal is supposed to meet all of the negotiating objectives, and a number of transparency requirements. The president must notify Congress before, during and after the completion of a deal, and the final deal must be public for 60 days before the president signs it.

If a president doesn’t meet every objective and reporting requirement, Congress can technically remove it from fast-track consideration. But only the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee has the power to initiate the process of withdrawal.

So if Democrats win the Senate and White House, a future deal might contain energy regulations that blatantly violate the objectives, but only the Democratic committee chairs could enforce the rules. Otherwise, the deal would automatically be considered under fast-track rules, and senators would have to vote up or down on the entire deal.

3. TPA will not allow the president to force the U.S. to change its laws.

There is language in TPA expressly stating that a trade agreement can’t change U.S. law. But using that as an assurance is misleading, because TPA is designed to ensure future trade agreements signed by the president make it into law. If Congress approves a deal, it of course becomes U.S. law.

So what’s stopping the president from unilaterally changing the law is a majority in the House and 51 votes in the Senate, which is a huge change from the 61 votes normally required for bills, or the 67 votes required for treaties.

If a federal, state or local law is determined to violate the terms of agreement by an international court, the relevant lawmakers would have to either change the law or face a penalty determined by the court, such as the removal of trade benefits or a fine.

It’s clear Congress has the ability to exercise more control over the president in the initial stages of a deal under TPA, but it’s also clear TPA handicaps the ability of members of Congress to complicate or fight a deal once it’s submitted for consideration.

“This all fits into the big picture of Congress just giving away authority,” a former high-ranking Senate staffer told TheDCNF, pointing to the lack of action against Obama’s executive order granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, the continued use of the nuclear option for appointees and the Iran deal.

“This Congress has been very meek on defending their own prerogatives, because they hope that on the roll of the dice they’ll have a Republican president,” he said.

The idea of Republicans working so hard to give the president they complain abuses his executive power even more authority to negotiate massive trade deals is odd, but Republicans insist it’s right and necessary to ensure free trade that will help the economy.

“I’ve been a supporter of Obama in much of his program, but in this area [trade] he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” labor economist Clyde Prestowitz, who served in the Reagan administration and is the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute, told TheDCNF.

“The point of the TPP deal has little to do with the economic welfare of the average American,” he said, referring to the massive deal Obama is negotiating with 11 other countries. “It has much to do with America’s geopolitical maneuvering in Asia, but the welfare of the average american is secondary.”

“It’s not going to be good for the average american,” he added. “The president doesn’t understand that.”

In a recent email to supporters, Obama hailed the deal, which he says can’t be completed without TPA, as the “most progressive” trade agreement in American history.

Asked if he’s concerned the deal will hurt Republicans if Democrats win the White House and take back the Senate in 2016, McClintock didn’t sound worried. “I have considerable confidence that with the largest Republican majorities in the House and the Senate since 1928, those deals are going to be beneficial for Americans.”

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