In a recent Reuters op-ed, Council on Foreign Relations’ scholar Edward Alden lavished praise on the Obama administration for “quietly embrac[ing] the most ambitious agenda on trade and investment liberalization in the past two decades.” Ted’s take evokes this Washington Post article from last March, in which Howard Schneider noted the emergence of a robust trade agenda and marveled at its meaning.

At the time, the announcement of an October 2013 deadline for completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, the launch of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, progress on a revised Information Technology Agreement, and fresh prospects for salvaging some elements of the Doha Round warranted a reappraisal of the state of U.S. trade policy.

In President Obama — both Alden and Schneider suggest — we are observing a metamorphosis from committed trade skeptic into someone seeking to create “a legacy in international economic and trade policy,” as another effusive optimist put it. At the time, I cautioned against crediting the president for a job not yet done and suggested that “Obama’s Trade Policy Should Be Judged on Its Accomplishments, Not Its Promise.”

Nine months later, it is waning promise more than notable accomplishment that explains any convergence between the two. Though Doha-lite-lite may have produced some minor agreements (news is still breaking), the ITA has so far failed, and it has become obvious that any benefits from the TTIP — if agreement is eventually struck — are several years away.

But it is the TPP that really matters most to U.S. trade policy. Much time, effort, and credibility have been invested in the TPP negotiations — the economic arm of the administration’s “pivot” to Asia. If TPP fails to produce a comprehensive, ambitious agreement, the economic and diplomatic consequences will be far reaching. Not only would a U.S. reputation already sullied by scandal, equivocation and hypocrisy slip further, but an alternative model for economic integration in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region driven by Chinese priorities would emerge to fill the void.

The stakes are higher than one would infer from the president’s efforts to date. Although his Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has worked hard to make progress toward an agreement with TPP negotiating partners, the president has been missing from the equally important and potentially trickier domestic discussion. Nearly four years into negotiations, which are alleged to be near completion, the president has not even secured the authority from Congress to negotiate foreign trade deals.

Congress has constitutional authority to “regulate foreign commerce,” which includes entering into trade agreements. Traditionally, Congress has delegated the authority to negotiate agreements to the executive through temporary legislation that conveys congressional parameters — the agreement must include A, B, and C and cannot include X, Y, and Z — in exchange for its commitment to consider the agreement expeditiously and without amendments. The claim that this process is unconstitutional — sponsored primarily by a group of committed Republican protectionists — is a poorly veiled attempt to sink the TPP.

“Fast Track” or “Trade Promotion Authority” makes negotiations more manageable and — it is commonly presumed — offers assurances to negotiating partners that completed trade deals will not be picked apart by 535 members and senators. (However, Colombia, South Korea, and Panama can attest to the fact that TPA granted no such assurances when Speaker Pelosi abrogated Congress’s commitment to give their respective bilateral deals timely consideration and to not revisit and revise their terms.)

The administration has played down its failure to secure TPA, issuing occasional assurances that Congress has been kept well informed throughout the process and that its input is already reflected in the emerging agreement. But with mounting congressional opposition to TPA and the presumed terms of TPP itself, who to believe: the White House or your lyin’ eyes?

Meanwhile, the administration deflects criticism for its reticence over TPA by arguing that it is Congress’s role, not the president’s, to craft the legislation. Technically, that may be true, but the process demands considerable input and advocacy from the administration. The last administration pushed long and hard to secure TPA in 2002, and was an active presence in Congress throughout the nearly year-long process.

Presumably, the president’s reluctance reflects the reality that his party in Congress largely opposes trade agreements. More than 150 of 200 House Democrats have registered their opposition to granting their president TPA. He knows how they feel. He was with them not too long ago, and part of him may still be. As has been the case for five years, the president remains unwilling to challenge his party’s orthodoxy or to pick a fight with congressional Democrats or the unions and environmental groups to whom they are beholden.

This reticence betrays a tepid commitment to an undertaking that requires full faith and effort from its chief advocate.

This reticence betrays a tepid commitment to an undertaking that requires full faith and effort from its chief advocate, which explains why we are where we are with the trade agenda: treading water. Perhaps the president should consider how poorly the Democrats in Congress represent registered Democrats in the population on the issue of trade. Results of a quadrennial Pew Research survey released this week shows that 83 percent of registered Democrats think that “growing trade and business ties are good for the U.S.,” which is much greater than the approximately 25 percent in Congress and is even higher than the 73 percent support for that proposition among registered Republicans.

Yet, the domestic conversation has been dominated by TPP detractors, whose daily salvos have gone almost entirely unaddressed by the administration. Characterizations of TPP as secretive, corporatist, undemocratic, unconstitutional, anti-poor, pro-tobacco, job-killing, and a threat to public health and safety have begun to stick and have energized opposition from activists who suspect the agreement is an effort to circumvent the domestic democratic process. Spirited opposition to the TPP should be expected from the same group of “netizens” who shot down the SOPA and PIPA legislation last year, and who perceive the leaked chapter on intellectual property as authorizing overreaching restrictions on the use of internet content.

On some of these complaints, TPP’s detractors may have some valid points. Those issues should be debated in public — as part of the push for TPA — and any provisions that would usurp domestic sovereignty to regulate in the public interest, for instance, should be examined and possibly changed.

The 20th round of TPP negotiations will take place in Singapore next week. Despite the end-of-December deadline (revised from October by USTR Michael Froman last summer), negotiators will not produce an agreement. Even if there weren’t such distance between the parties on most chapters in the draft, as there is reported to be, a final deal is still a very long way away. Why? Because the flip side of the argument that TPA inoculates agreements from congressional tinkering is that an agreement reached before or without TPA should be expected to be unwound and revised by Congress.

The failure of the administration to secure TPA means that the TPP, as it stands now, is subject to potentially sweeping revisions. Some Democrats are demanding more stringent labor and environmental protections, while a bipartisan group of 60 senators and a growing number of House members are insisting that the TPP include provisions for addressing currency manipulation. There are bound to be numerous other potentially deal-breaking demands.

The 11 other negotiating partners are well aware of this dynamic and, accordingly, will not be forthcoming with their final offers until after Congress officially weighs in with its demands. As that is not going to happen until 2014 at the earliest — an election year — a TPP deal does not stand a chance of being ratified by Congress before 2015 at the earliest.

So, it turns out that whatever domestic political turbulence the White House was expecting to avoid by going forward with trade negotiations before securing TPA from Congress was not really avoided at all. It was merely deferred. Now the president must decide. If he is a real champion of trade liberalization, he must acknowledge that there are political tradeoffs, confront the opponents of TPP, who reside predominantly in his own party, step on some toes, and make a long-overdue, compelling case for why the TPP is important to the country’s future.

Converting the promising trade agenda into actual accomplishment will require the president to move forward with Congressional Republicans and the Democrats he is able to peel off with his advocacy efforts. In other words, success will require the president to stand down fellow Democrats and stand with congressional Republicans — neither of which he has any experience doing.

If the president is unwilling to lead and do what is necessary to see the TPP through to success, we can dwell even further on the differences between promise and accomplishment as we wait for brighter prospects in 2017 — although, at that point, the United States will be waiting alone.


Daniel Ikenson
About The Author Daniel Ikenson [Full Bio]
Dan Ikenson is an author, speaker and Director of The Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, focusing on WTO disputes, regional trade agreements, U.S.-China trade issues, steel and textile trade policies, and antidumping reform.

You don't have permission to view or post comments.

Quick Search

FREE Impact Analysis

Get an inside perspective and stay on top of the most important issues in today's Global Economic Arena. Subscribe to The Manzella Report's FREE Impact Analysis Newsletter today!