WASHINGTON -- Congress’ tax committees announced an agreement Thursday to speed through a bill to give President Barack Obama the fast-track authority that he will need to push mammoth new trade deals through Congress.
While many believed a deal was in the works, news that it was actually done came as a surprise to members of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, which had been called to a hearing on the deal less than 12 hours earlier.
The “trade promotion authority” bill, or TPA, would allow the White House to cut new trade deals with Asian and European nations, and then pass them through Congress using expedited procedures. Under these rules, the deals cannot be amended or obstructed, and they get a simple up-or-down vote.
The fast-track authority would likely pave the way for both the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement with the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with a dozen Asian nations. Both deals are vastly larger than NAFTA, and would involve about two-thirds of the entire world’s economy. Currently, the United States has trade agreements covering just 10 percent of world trade.
The hastily called Senate hearing on the TPA featured three of the administration's top officials on trade: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and United States Trade Representative Michael Froman. The deal's backers are Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.).
Several Democrats at the morning session seemed furious that they had been summarily called in about a measure they had not been shown or given any time to read, signaling that Obama will face a major struggle with his own party to get his trade agenda passed.
“Today we’re meeting in a hearing that was noticed 12 hours before it began on a bill we haven’t seen with witnesses, I assume, who know more than we do, and frankly, will never tell us,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who noted that previous trade deals have gotten extensive airings in Congress before lawmakers had to vote on them.
“We can’t fast track fast-track, that’s a complete abdication of our responsibilities,” Brown said.
“This process is not good,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the heir-apparent to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). “We are supposed to vote on TPA, tie our hands and not vote on amendments, before we’ve seen what the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] is. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Schumer was referring to the fact that the fast-track authority was being pursued even before the details of the trade deals themselves are known. And once the fast-track bill is law, it will be dramatically easier for the White House to push through the deals, which are backed by many Republicans and significant numbers of business-friendly Democrats. Republican leaders would need to muster only simple majorities to pass the agreements.
House members also were not briefed on the legislation and were equally peeved, an aide said. Indeed, Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is not a co-sponsor.
In order to get an agreement on a deal, Republicans had to convince Wyden. The Oregon lawmker, who is facing pressure from progressives and is up for reelection next year, wanted stronger labor protections, aid for workers whose jobs are moved overseas, greater means to enforce the deals and a greater degree of congressional and public oversight.
“I'm proud this bipartisan bill creates what I expect to be unprecedented transparency in trade negotiations, and ensures future trade deals break new ground to promote human rights, improve labor conditions, and safeguard the environment,” Wyden said in a statement.
Wyden said the bill includes numerous requirements to improve transparency going forward, and strict requirements for the White House to notify Congress and the public about a trade deal, once it attempts to draft one. There are also requirements for the White House to assert that the nations on the other side of an agreement can hold up their end of the bargain.
Wyden also pointed to new procedures in the measure that would give Congress a means to revoke fast-track authority. It was not immediately clear how practicable or easy it would be to revoke that authority. But the legislation specifies that if the president fails to meet certain guidelines while crating trade deals, the two tax-writing committees have the authority to offer resolutions of disapproval that would curtail fast-track authority. In the Senate, however, that vote would be subject to filibusters, unlike the trade deals themselves, making it more difficult for Congress to interfere.
In a hearing later on Thursday afternoon, Wyden and Hatch formally unveiled the legislation.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) noted that he only had time to get up to page 32 of the main bill, and had yet to look at related measures, such as the Trade Adjustment Act that would aid displaced workers.
The legislation is expected to be voted on in the committees next week, and is likely to face stiff opposition from numerous environmental and labor groups, among others.
Update: 8:06 p.m. -- After opponents had a chance to sort through the bill, they declared it just as bad as versions that failed to advance in previous Congresses, and said the "exit ramp" to pull the fast-track authority could not be effectively employed. Not only could the disapproval be filibustered, but there are also just 60 days to move such a measure, and they come after the president signs a trade pact. Doing so would require the other nations involved to agree as well, according to an analysis by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Worse, critics said, the two huge deals already in the works for the Pacific and Europe are exempted from that off-ramp, on the grounds that they pre-date the new bill.
“Congress is being asked to delegate away its constitutional trade authority over the TPP, even after the administration ignored bicameral, bipartisan demands about the agreement’s terms, and then also grant blank-check authority to whomever may be the next president for any agreements he or she may pursue,” said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch. “Rather than putting Congress in the driver’s seat on trade, this bill is just the same old fast track that puts Congress in the trunk in handcuffs. I expect that Congress will say no to it.”
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.