Fast Track Compromise?

So the Senate could take up (or fail to take up) Trade Promotion Authority legislation today that is tied to but extends well beyond the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is in the final negotiation stages. TPA, better known as “fast-track,” provides that any trade agreement submitted to Congress under its provisions for the next six years will be considered under special rules that prohibit amendment or filibuster. But TPA itself could succumb to a filibuster this week. That in itself is a bit of a surprise in the traditionally pro-trade Senate.

There are several reasons a majority of Senate Democrats are likely to vote against TPA, or go along with a filibuster against it. The most immediate if least publicly understood is an argument over bills Mitch McConnell has agreed to allow onto the floor for a vote in conjunction with TPA, including some new trade adjustment assistance dollars and authorization of retaliation against countries manipulating their currencies in a way that affects U.S. jobs. Another is the complaint that a six-year grant of TPA could enable a future Republican president to move a trade agreement no Democrats support. And still another is unhappiness over classified elements of the TPP itself.

But the objection you will probably hear most is the TPA provides a “rubber-stamp” that makes it impossible to “fix” trade agreements after they are negotiated but before they are approved. That is undoubtedly true, but supporters of the “rubber-stamp” argument (a) won’t admit that there would probably never be another multilataral trade agreement without it, and (b) also won’t admit Congress is as free to vote down the agreement as it is to approve it.

The reality is that the main reason opponents of TPP have targeted TPA is that it can be filibustered, and may attract opposition from Republicans who have no particular problem with TPP but don’t want to vote to give Barack Obama authority to do anything.

As a sworn enemy of the filibuster, and as someone who isn’t buying the “rubber-stamp” argument or the claim Obama has too much power, I have a hard time rallying to the anti-TPA cause, even though the more I learn about TPP the less I think it is a good agreement.

But even though both sides are trying to make this a simple choice, I do wonder if a compromise on “fast-track” is possible. Obviously Mitch McConnell can satisfy Democrats on the related legislation they are calling for if he so wishes. Transparency provisions can be added so long as the administration is placed in a position to tell trading partners it was necessary. And the six-year tenure of TPA is hardly written in stone; it could be shortened.

Nobody’s talking about a compromise, of course. But I hope behind the scenes somebody’s talking about it. Sure would be a nice gift to Hillary Clinton.

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.