Fast Track Isn’t So Fast

This week, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill granting President Obama trade promotion authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. In today’s parlance, this is often called “fast track” negotiating authority. But as it turns out this time, that’s a bit of a misnomer.

The bill would make any final trade agreement open to public comment for 60 days before the president signs it, and up to four months before Congress votes. If the agreement, negotiated by the United States trade representative, fails to meet the objectives laid out by Congress — on labor, environmental and human rights standards — a 60-vote majority in the Senate could shut off “fast-track” trade rules and open the deal to amendment.

The public will have two months to review TPP before the President signs it and a total of four months before Congress votes on it.

But that’s not the only thing Congress weighs in on when granting trade promotion authority. They also lay out negotiating objectives. When it comes to the bill approved this week on TPP:

In all, the bill sets down 150 negotiating objectives, such as tough new rules on intellectual property protection, lowering of barriers to agricultural exports, labor and environmental standards, rule of law and human rights. Reflecting the modern economy, Congress would demand a loosening of restrictions on cross-border data flow, an end to currency manipulation and rules for competition from state-owned enterprises.

Those objectives will be added to the ones already publicized by the US Trade Representative’s Office. All in all, that gives us a very good idea about the positioning of the U.S. on the issues involved.

As the first quote above says, when the negotiations are complete, if Congress thinks their objectives were not met, they can shut off “fast track” with 60 votes and amend the deal.

I point this all out to say that there is going to be plenty of time to not only discuss the particulars that are included in TPP, there is also a way – even with so-called “fast track” – for Congress to get involved. Granting the President trade promotion authority simply realigns the scales of Congress, which are currently weighted against anything passing.

On the particulars of TPP, Greg Sargent published an interview this week with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. Here’s one of the more interesting quotes:

I share the skepticism that my friends have about NAFTA. It was woefully weak in protecting workers and on the enforcement side. The question is: Can we meaningfully build a trade regime that has as its North Star protecting American workers and American jobs through meaningful enforcement? I think we can. It’s imperative that we not default to the status quo, which would mean we don’t fix NAFTA.

Contrary to the idea that TPP is a repeat of NAFTA, Perez suggests that it provides the opportunity to fix what is wrong with NAFTA. The White House provided an interesting chart to demonstrate what he’s talking about.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.