Latin America Advisor

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Will Congress Unravel the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Brett Weinstein-Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton surprised observers Oct. 7 by reversing her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now saying she is not in favor of the massive 12-nation trade accord finalized last week by negotiators in Atlanta. Meanwhile, even Congressional supporters of the talks signaled the deal would face a tough debate on Capitol Hill next year. Will the TPP pass the United States Congress? How will election-year politics play into its future? What steps can supporters of the accord take to help secure passage? What strategies will the TPP's opponents most likely employ?

Jim Kolbe, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former Republican U.S. congressman from Arizona: “While it is no surprise that Secretary Clinton has come out in opposition to the TPP, it is hard not to view the newly found opposition without a good dose of cynicism. Her tenure as secretary of state is replete with words of support for the agreement as it was being negotiated, including one major address in which she referred to it as the ‘gold standard for trade agreements.’ The fact that the former secretary has come out in opposition is a blow to the president she served for four years and complicates the likelihood of receiving approval from Congress. However, the main difficulty for Secretary Clinton is the fact that as long as she remains the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, her opposition precludes all but the smallest number of Democrats in Congress from supporting the agreement. Almost no member of Congress running for re-election will want to run in opposition to the party’s standard bearer on such a major issue. Democrats have sufficient numbers in the Senate to preclude even the consideration of the agreement if they choose that path. Add to that the lukewarm support for the agreement among Republicans, and consideration or passage of the agreement before the fall 2016 election seems unlikely. While the agreement could be voted on in a lame-duck session after the November 2016 election, if Secretary Clinton is then president-elect, she would probably insist on a chance to renegotiate parts of the agreement. But this is no bilateral agreement where a bit of ‘tweaking’ here and there might suffice, but an agreement in which 11 other trading partners would have to consent to any changes—a very unlikely scenario. Secretary Clinton’s opposition to the TPP may well end up dooming President Obama’s ambitious trade agenda.”

Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics: “While Hillary Clinton may have reversed her prior enthusiastic support of the TPP, if elected president, she can rediscover the geopolitical virtues that led her to embrace the TPP project when she served as secretary of state. And Clinton can toss in a couple of ‘side agreements’—reminiscent of NAFTA—to nudge the TPP closer to her concept of a gold standard. But between now and 2017, the TPP must survive a perilous journey through Congress. The timelines specified under Trade Promotion Authority mean that the soonest President Obama could sign the TPP text will be late January 2016. Meanwhile, Obama will need to agree with his Congressional counterparts— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and probable House Speaker Paul Ryan—on the text of the TPP implementing legislation, including any ‘sweeteners’ inserted to attract the votes of wavering congressmen. Then, in the midst of the presidential election campaign, the House and Senate must vote the implementing legislation up or down, without amendments. If he sees no clear shot at reaching ‘yes’, President Obama can elect to not submit implementing legislation to Congress, and instead leave the task of securing ratification to his successor. On balance, it appears that President Obama will use every ounce of his dwindling political capital stock to secure Congressional approval of the TPP in 2016 and, at the same time, secure his own historic legacy. But if the critical vote is postponed until 2017—when ratification seems all but certain, provided that Sanders and Trump remain far from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—the TPP will still enjoy a fine launch into the annals of path-breaking trade agreements."

Welles Orr, senior international trade advisor at Miller & Chevalier: “Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s politically calculated announcement in opposition to the recently concluded TPP deal is unfortunate but not surprising. However, it’s not clear how the TPP missed the ‘high bar’ she claims to have set without fully knowing all the details, but that’s the whimsy of Democratic primary politics before us. At least now we know that no matter who is the Democratic nominee next summer, we’ll know where they stand on trade. That said, I doubt Clinton’s opposition will bear a whole lot of weight in the fight for Democratic votes for the TPP next year, but it doesn’t make the White House lobbying effort any easier. The White House is now launching a full-court press to fully brief Congress and the private sector on the merits of the deal. Fortunately, under the rules of the Trade Promotion Authority bill (TPA) approved this summer, the USTR will finalize the TPP text and release it for Congressional review within 30 days, followed by a 90-day notice by President Obama of his intent to sign the agreement. There is and will be plenty of time for the Hill to completely scrutinize the deal. However, some seasoned pro-trade skeptics say this big window of review required by the TPA could be a curse rather than a blessing for the TPP’s ultimate passage. Expect detractors from both sides to claim the TPP lacks meaningful rules on currency manipulation, inadequate or weakened labor and human rights standards and unacceptable auto market access rules or origin. Expect to see pro-TPA votes peel away. However, the biggest challenge for the TPP is its consideration in a presidential election year—a first for a trade vote of this size.”

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