The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the controversial trade deal could sneak through Congress after the November 8 election and be signed by President Obama before he leaves office next January.
Like most major policy issues, the TPP doesn’t have a clear path to approval. But it does have a pretty obvious gatekeeper – Texas Congressman Kevin Brady, who assumed the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee when Paul Ryan became House Speaker. The TPP has to make it out of this committee to have a chance of passage.
Brady, like Ryan, has been a supporter of the TPP and free trade in general. Brady has not revealed what he plans to do, perhaps intentionally to avoid becoming a presidential candidate punching bag or embarrassing GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Action on inaction in Congress on the trade deal will likely have more to do with politics than policy.
Organized labor, which has trash-talked the TPP, leaned on many Democrats to come out in opposition, despite President Obama’s strong endorsement of the deal. That means the TPP will need very strong support from Republicans in the House and Senate to pass.
If Trump wins the presidency, a GOP-led Congress may want to get the trade pact inked before he takes office. If Hillary Clinton wins and the GOP retains control over both houses of Congress, the calculation might change. Congressional Republicans may want her to face the political backlash of going back on her campaign promise to oppose TPP or repudiate the Democratic president she will succeed.
While opponents and proponents can disagree over the relative merits of labor and environmental provisions in the TPP, it does seem clear that failure to pass the trade deal would doom any chance to renegotiate it in the near future. That would raise fears, which Obama has stoked, that the future of trade in the Asia Pacific region, which represents 40 percent of the worlds Gross Domestic Product, could be shaped by China and may not favor U.S. interests.
Much has been made about industry lobbyists guiding U.S. strategy in the negotiations over the TPP, but that isn’t a major deviation from past practice. Issues involving intellectual property, for example, are enormously complex and require expertise from companies and individuals that have been on the frontline of battling to preserve their property rights.
Any trade deal produces winners and losers, and that is a fair way for a Member of Congress to judge whether or not the deal is in the best interest of his or her constituency. The best trade deals are ones that attempt to address future problems, not remediate past problems. But all trade deals fall short in some way or another. Critics, for example, say the TPP does little to address currency manipulation by trading partners that compete unfairly with U.S. products and services.
Advocates for trade deals such as TPP argue protectionist provisions can boomerang and industries impacted and workers dislocated by globalization should be addressed by better conceived and funded domestic policies. Passage of TPP by Congress in its looming lame duck session may focus the policy debate and political firestorm on what a well-conceived and well-funded domestic policy would look like.