Here Comes Fast Track Again

Those observers who think Democrats need to make a clean break with the Obama administration may be about to have their wish come true. in 2015 a long-awaited duo of trade expansion measuers are expected to obtain votes in Congress. The most substantive is the mega-trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would bind twelve countries–Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam–to a set of measures ranging from tariff reduction to intellectual property protection to restrictions on export subsidies and currency manipulation. But before it is finalized, the administration wants a restoration of “fast-track trade negotiation authority” that will give the deal and up-or-down vote in Congress.

It’s fast-track that seems to have created the most immediate Democratic revolt, as noted by the New York Times‘ Landler and Weisman:

Republicans inclined to give the president trade-negotiating authority are still seething at his executive action deferring deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants. Many conservatives are in no mood to give Mr. Obama anything, said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and a former United States trade representative in the George W. Bush administration….

Democrats may be the bigger problem. Mr. Froman has met dozens of times with Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction on trade. And Mr. Levin said he wants to work with the administration on the T.P.P., down to the finest details.

But he said he was not about to allow Mr. Obama to negotiate the partnership on his own, then present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no opportunity to change it. And Mr. Levin’s stature and seniority command respect in the House Democratic Caucus.

“You’re asking members to give away their leverage on a historic trade agreement when there are major issues outstanding,” Mr. Levin said, suggesting that a vote on trade promotion authority before the presentation of a completed T.P.P. “would be a donnybrook.”

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee in the coming Congress, is one of the strongest trade advocates in Washington; he said virtually no Democrat who had supported trade promotion authority in the past would be left in the Senate next year.

This isn’t unprecedented. House Democrats were largely responsible for denying Bill Clinton fast-track authority in 1997. Critics of fast-track argue its absence didn’t keep the Clinton administration from completing trade agreements. Supporters say retroactive amendment of trade agreements by congressional amendment makes negotiations far more difficult than should be the case. Both sides are less publicly lobbying for provisions in the underlying agreements. But expect to hear a lot of general talk about the pros and cons of globalization.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.