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Trade Promotion Authority: What it Is and What it Isn't

The House of Representatives is poised to vote on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 1314). Unfortunately, there has been some misinformed criticism, in Congress and elsewhere, of so-called “fast track” legislation. Under TPA, the President has the authority to negotiate trade agreements if certain criteria established by Congress are met. Then Congress reviews the agreement and the implementing legislation and has to vote on the bill with no amendments allowed.

  • TPA puts Congress in charge.

TPA essentially is an accommodation between the Executive and the Legislative branches of government to assure trading partners that what they agreed upon during negotiations won’t be overturned in the voting process.

Congress gives negotiating authority to the President for trade agreements only if certain congressionally determined criteria are met:

  • That very specific objectives outlined in TPA are accomplished in a trade agreement;
  • That Congress is consulted throughout the negotiating process; and
  • That timetables outlined in TPA for Congressional review of the text and the implementing legislation are followed.

In return, Congress agrees to consider the legislation without amendments and have an up or down vote on it.

  • TPA is not a new concept.

Congress has granted the President trade negotiating authority since the time of FDR. As the Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome shows, every president since then—a total of 12 presidents—has been given such authority, with the Trade Act of 2002 being the last one of that long succession.

  • TPA provides ample time for Congressional and public review of the texts of trade agreements before the President signs them and when implementing legislation is introduced.

Before the President signs any trade agreement, he has to make it available to the public for 60 days. Once signed, Congress will have months to review the negotiated text, hold “mock markups” and suggest changes before legislation is introduced. Also, before the bills are sent to Congress, the International Trade Commission submits a report to Congress, and the U.S. Trade Representatives’ (USTR) Trade Advisory Committees submit reports.

Then, once the implementing legislation is introduced, Congress has 90 legislative days to review, debate, and vote on the bills.

  • TPA provides trading partners with assurance that negotiations they undertook and completed in good faith will be acted upon.

In fact, it is likely that some governments won’t sign onto free trade agreements with the U.S. unless “fast track” is in place. Trade negotiations involve give-and-take on many sensitive issues, with trading partners giving up an advantage here or there to gain a different advantage elsewhere. Without TPA all of those carefully negotiated issues could be opened up. There would be no credibility for U.S. negotiators, which would critically undermine the process.

Contrary to its critics’ assertions, TPA establishes the process and procedures for the President and Congress to work together in building a mutually healthy global economy.