Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) writes about trade.
Congress is expected to soon consider several trade agreements and I wanted to take some time this week to share my general thoughts on these upcoming votes. Trade agreements between the United States and other counties, or a group of countries, are negotiated by the President and Executive Branch officials. Like all treaties with foreign nations and the laws that implement them, these agreements are subject to Congressional approval. Historically, Congress has had the authority to agree, reject, or amend any proposed trade agreements submitted for ratification. If Congress amended the agreements, the President was then required to re-negotiate them in order to incorporate the changes.
In the recent past, however, Presidents have requested Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), more commonly known as “Fast Track”. TPA significantly limits the voice of the legislative branch. A vote on granting the President TPA is expected soon in the House. TPA limits Congressional action on a trade agreement to a simple up or down vote. By approving TPA, Congress agrees to give up its right to amend the agreement, and we are being asked to do so before any agreement is even finalized.
Trade Promotion Authority, or Fast Track, was first approved for deals negotiated between 1975 and 1980. It was extended from 1981 to 1988; and then again for trade agreements between 1989 and 1994. Fast Track was later re-adopted for deals negotiated between 2002 and 2011.
Once again, Congress is expected to consider TPA or Fast Track. I think it is unwise for any Member of Congress to surrender our constitutional responsibilities without knowing exactly why this step is necessary and what specifically Congress is agreeing to. I voted against Fast Track Authorization in 2002 and I fully expect to vote no again this year.
The reason TPA is being considered is because the Obama Administration is currently negotiating two trade deals. Details are very limited but here is a brief overview of them:
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)–This is a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. It is notable that China, Taiwan and South Korea are NOT part of this agreement. The agreement is not yet finalized.
The President has declared the draft agreement CLASSIFIED. This means that Members of Congress, unaccompanied by staff, are allowed to read it under very specific conditions. It must be reviewed only in a secure location and we cannot make a copy. If we take notes, they must be surrendered before leaving the secure location. The draft agreement cannot be discussed with anyone for any reason, with the exception of other Members of Congress.
In my early professional life, I was a tax lawyer and considered myself a tax law expert. Even then, I always tried to discuss tax issues with other professionals. I thought these discussions were important for many reasons. I wanted to hear the perspective of others and make sure I wasn’t missing some aspect of an issue. This process always helped me to more fully understand the issue at hand.
I am not a trade expert. In order to learn as much as I can about these issues, it’s important for me to discuss them with as many knowledgeable individuals as possible: business and labor leaders, human rights and environmental activists, economists and historians, as wide a variety of practitioners as possible. To render this sort of research illegal because all of the details are classified makes no sense to me. I am instead forced to discuss the deals in broad strokes and generalities and, remember, the deal isn’t even finalized yet so no one can really speak with authority about what it will ultimately look like.
Given these circumstances, it is highly unlikely I will get to a point where I feel my understanding of the complicated issues involved in TPP is adequate to cast a responsible vote on the treaty. When I am unsure about any issue, I walk a careful path and tend to listen much more closely to people I usually agree with, people who see the world as I do and share my principles. Therefore, since I am legally prohibited from discussing any details of the TPP now available to Members of Congress, AND because the agreement is not yet in final form, I will likely vote NO on TPP. If the Administration makes the full text of the deal public and it seems reasonable to me and to others whose judgment I respect, I may reconsider. At this writing, however, no such document is available.
The second trade deal expected to be considered under TPA or Fast Track Authority is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This trade agreement is being negotiated between the United States and the 28-member European Union. All of the restrictions in place for TPP are in place for TTIP. That agreement is not finalized yet either. But unlike with TPP, there is no draft or outline of TTIP available to Members of Congress. Once a draft is ready for review, it will probably be classified and subject to the same restrictive rules as TPP.
Our Constitution gives Congress serious foreign policy responsibilities, including the ratification of treaties. I have long been troubled by the unwillingness of administrations, both Republican and Democratic, to recognize this constitutional requirement and the wisdom of involving Congress in foreign policy.
For more information, Rep. Capuano recommends this CRS report:
Here Tom Reed expresses his views: