The confluence of the debate over trade promotion authority (TPA) and the “end game” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations has complicated President Obama’s objective of getting a bi-partisan TPA bill through Congress.  In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized TPA, or “fast track” legislation, as one of his Administration’s trade policy priorities this year.  The President’s 2015 Trade Policy Agenda reiterates his call for fast track legislation, which the Agenda describes as “a critical tool for Congress to update and assert its role in trade policy and to guide current and future negotiations.”  The fate of the TPP agreement is at the heart of President Obama’s concerns over fast track, as he warned during the State of the Union that “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region.”

Despite these calls for support, the Administration  has not been able to secure clear congressional backing for TPA.  Some continue to view TPA with suspicion on procedural grounds, as an inherent presidential infringement on congressional authority.  Others worry, with the TPP negotiations nearing conclusion, that TPA will be useless in terms of congressional oversight.  Perhaps more problematic for the Administration are those who have used the TPA debate as an additional channel through which to oppose the TPP agreement, or trade liberalization generally, on substantive grounds.

Certain aspects of the agreement, such as broad investor-state dispute settlement procedures, the lack of currency manipulation provisions, or questions regarding the ability of countries like Vietnam to live up to labor rights commitments have drawn consistent criticism from some members of the House and the Senate.  These members may fear that supporting TPA is tantamount to supporting the TPP agreement as a whole, and to surrendering their opposition to what they see as the agreement’s issue-specific flaws.  TPA supporters nonetheless anticipate that a bill will be introduced no later than April, following the Easter recess.

The 2015 Trade Policy Agenda seeks to refute these concerns by describing TPA legislation as “the product of decades of evolution during which time Congress has strengthened its role in overseeing trade policy.”  The Agenda also argues that “there is nothing fast about [fast track authority],” apparently seeking to assuage concerns that TPA would leave Congress with no meaningful opportunity to shape the TPP agreement.  The Agenda also includes a substantive defense of the President’s trade initiatives by emphasizing expanded export opportunities for both goods and services, stronger intellectual property protections, and the use of trade agreements to strengthen global labor and environmental standards.

However, these arguments may be too little too late.  With the TPP negotiations set to conclude as early as this spring, it remains to be seen whether the agreement will benefit from fast track protection in Congress.