Image by Thomas Hawk
President Obama is mobilizing a last-ditch effort to overcome opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and get it passed before leaving office. He is planning to present it to Congress just after the election so it can get a “no amendments allowed” yes or no vote, in accordance with the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) (“fast-track”) Act, during the lame duck.
In a lame duck session, members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate are least accountable to their constituents. So this is the most difficult time for opponents of the TPP to block its passage, and the easiest time for the President and the pro-TPP lobbyists to sell the deal to Senators and members of Congress.
How might opponents of the TPP defeat a final effort by Obama to pass it?
First, opponents can increase popular pressure on Congress both before and after the election, to get candidates to commit to opposing the TPP. They can make clear that they will not forget incumbents who vote for the deal.
They also must do everything possible to get Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer to call for Democrats, whether they are re-elected or not, to oppose the TPP in the lame duck. Without that pressure, Democrats who voted for the TPA are likely to stand firm, making it much more likely that the TPP will pass.
The party leadership and the President-elect could certainly shift most of the Democrats who supported “fast-track” in 2015 over to the anti-TPP side if they imposed party discipline. That would mean getting them to focus less on Obama’s legacy and more on their own political futures, given that the majority of their constituents are opposed to “free trade” agreements. Such party discipline would mean that one or both of the Houses of Congress could neuter “fast-track” by voting no under the TPA. Then, they could reintroduce the agreement but under regular order, so they could deliberate, debate, and amend any particular trade agreement the President sends over. Finally, they would pass the amended agreement, and send it to the other House for approval under its rules.
Once approved by both Houses, the agreement would go to the President and she/he can choose whether to sign it or not. The ball will then be in his/her court. The President can go to other nations, inform them about what Congress will allow, and then each can decide whether they want to enter an agreement that is satisfactory to both the Congress and the President.
So, no fast-track is necessary to legislate a Congressional-Executive Trade Agreement. All one House of Congress has to do is say “no” by majority vote, and then fast-track is over for that agreement.
Informed voters need to know what to do if their Representative or Senator is contemplating voting for a trade agreement that incorporates Investor State Dispute Settlement, or similar provisions that essentially gut public interest laws, especially if that lawmaker is defending herself or himself by saying that there's nothing she or he can do because only a yes or no vote is possible under “fast-track.” Voters can tell their representatives to vote "no," make “fast-track” inoperative, and to amend the agreement via the normal process so that it no longer undermines the sovereignty of the United States.
If lawmakers pass the TPP—or any other agreement under fast-track—they need to be held accountable. They do have a choice.
Joe Firestone is frequent blogger on policy and trade.