No “Rubber Stamp” for TPP After All?

During most of the unsuccessful campaign against Trade Promotion Authority (a.k.a. “fast-track”), opponents of the measure insisted repeatedly that it was the ball-game when it came to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and perhaps future trade or commercial agreements negotiated during TPA’s duration (until July 1, 2018). It reduced, to use the most common metaphor, Congressional power over such agreements to a “rubber stamp.”

But now that TPA has emerged triumphant from a congressional thicket of obstacles, lo and behold, opponents of TPP are not just folding their tents, having lost the only fight that matters. As Stephen Collinson of CNN reports, there is renewed hope that gradual understanding of the agreement’s terms and an election-year atmosphere could yet turn the tide:

[O]pponents of the Pacific Rim trade pact, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, are promising to muster a growing coalition of union, environmental and community groups to heap pressure on lawmakers who will now face a vote on ratifying it in the volatile political atmosphere of the 2016 election campaign….

[F]inal passage of any TPP deal is no sure thing — and not just because Obama will be low on leverage at the end of his mandate.

Supporters of the TPP hoped that they could get Congress to sign off on the pact before the notion of global trade gets caught in the inevitable election-year backlash against Wall Street, corporations and low-wage economies overseas that have syphoned jobs from rust belt swing states in the Midwest and elsewhere.

But now, lawmakers will be asked to take a tough vote that could expose them to attacks from opponents of the deal.

TPP nations may ink a final agreement at a ministerial meeting this summer and could present the deal as the highlight of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum later this year.

But there’s no guarantee the fragile coalition assembled by Obama and McConnell — mostly Republican but bolstered by pro-trade Democrats — will survive. And the clock is ticking.

“I am very doubtful we can have a ratification vote before the end of this year,” said Mireya Solis, a specialist on Japanese economic policy at the Brookings Institution. “We are thinking this is going to spill over to 2016 and this opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.”

Despite the “rubber stamp” talk, all “fast-track” denies trade agreement opponents is (1) the ability to amend a deal to death–you know, attaching “buy American” or some other politically popular provisions no other country could ever accept, and (2) the use of the filibuster to block a vote. Congress can not only vote down a final agreement (as the term “up-or-down vote” suggests), but can amend or repeal TPA itself via a simple majority vote. While it may be objected that any president would veto a TPA repeal, a modification could definitely be part of the political wheeling-and-dealing associated with consideration of an actual agreement, particularly when, as is the case today, the president’s own party is largely in opposition to the deal, leaving its future presidential nominee in a tough position.

So no, opponents of and skeptics towards TPP should not give up at this point, and indeed, have every reason to keep pressure up on Hillary Clinton not just on TPP, but on her position on international commercial negotiations if and when she becomes president. But next time we have a fast-track debate, let’s please drop the “rubber stamp” rhetoric. It’s not fundamentally true, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophect.

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.