The Senate Democrats feel that President Obama’s “fast track authority” for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which is being currently negotiated, erodes the safeguards necessary to “prevent future financial crises.”
However, such opposition is disingenuous; trade promotion authority should be considered on its own merits as a useful tool in making good international agreements without significantly undermining Congressional oversight. It should not be dispensed on an ad hoc basis depending on how you feel about the treaty in question.
“Fast track” or trade promotion authority (TPA) as contemplated would require Congress to introduce the bill into committee once they are in session. Congress would then have up to 90 days to work the bill through the relevant committees and vote in both chambers.
The treaty in question has already been signed by the President and the leaders of the other nations in the agreement. Congress is not required to ratify the treaty, but our negotiating partners deserve that any signed agreement come up for a vote at some foreseeable point, and not be held in limbo by obscure parliamentary maneuvers.
The TPA process allows 45 days of debate in committee, 20 hours on the floor of the House and 20 hours on the floor of the Senate. It is hard to imagine that this would not be sufficient for all sides to argue their case for or against any foreseeable international trade treaty.
Most controversially, TPA forbids the introduction of amendments to the treaty. However, as opposed to typical legislation, a treaty is a multinational agreement. Were Congress to make any amendment whatsoever to a treaty, whether it is to lower a carbon emission standard by one part per million, or forbid the use of foreign aid for family planning, any change in the terms of the treaty sends all the parties back to the drawing boards, nullifying the signatures of the various heads of state who were party to the agreement, and any ratifications made by foreign legislatures.
Any amendment – even a “friendly” one intended to improve the agreement – would surely torpedo the treaty and require negotiations to begin again. Furthermore, our negotiating partners will view us as negotiating in bad faith, and would meet our new terms with new demands of their own.
Even if a legislator likes a treaty but believes it needs improvement, he should not seek to amend it. Rather he should consider how long it would take to renegotiate the treaty, and how likely the new negotiations would settle on the desired outcome. On the basis of these questions, the legislator may either decide to vote against the treaty, or to “hold his nose” and ratify the treaty as-is.
Legislators who strive to kill a treaty with a seemingly “friendly” amendment are being extremely deceptive. If a treaty is unfair (and perhaps this is the case with the Trans-Pacific Partnership) let it come up for a vote and explain why it should not be ratified. If your arguments are strong, the treaty will fail, but don’t disguise your motives by preventing the treaty as signed from even being considered.