The White House’s effort to obtain trade-promotion authority, otherwise known as “fast track,” for President Barack Obama and his negotiators in international trade deals hit a speed bump Friday.
At issue: Two votes on trade by the House of Representatives, one on fast track and one on trade adjustment assistance, which provides training and support to U.S. workers who lose their jobs as a result of international trade agreements.
Under the House leaders’ arrangement, both measures had to pass before trade-promotion authority could become effective.
That led to an unusual set of events. The House of Representatives first voted 126-302 against the trade adjustment assistance, only to vote 219 to 211 to grant trade promotion authority to President Obama.
(Trade-promotion authority is important because it allows the president to negotiate with foreign countries and bring a proposal to Congress for a “yes” or “no” vote, without amendments. Supporters say it gives trading partners more confidence in an American president’s ability to craft a deal that all parties can agree upon. Trade promotion authority has been used in the past by Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and others, but it lapsed in 2007.)
The situation left even Capitol Hill veterans scratching their heads. “It wasn’t initially clear what happened,” said Patrick Delaney, director of policy communications at the American Soybean Association, which represents 21,000 soybean producers.
What did become clear was that House Democrats had delivered a rebuke to the White House by refusing to support trade adjustment assistance. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is a bruise for the administration,” Delaney told AgWeb.
Regardless of the procedural issues, though, these votes are economically important to farmers, ranchers, and others involved in agriculture. According to the USDA, 20% of American farm income comes from exports.
It adds up to big money. In 2014, the U.S. exported more than $150 billion worth of agricultural products.
Trade agreements make a difference, too. The dollar volume of U.S. ag exports to countries that have free trade deals with the U.S. have more than doubled, going from $25 billion in 2003 to $60 billion in 2015.
With numbers like those, many ag groups are frustrated by Friday’s votes.
“We are disappointed by the House of Representatives’ inability to move forward with the full package of trade legislation. This is a blow to American farmers, livestock producers, businesses, and workers,” said Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, in a statement Friday. “… This legislation would bring us one step closer to open markets and greater access to millions of consumers living beyond our borders.”
In the Asia-Pacific region alone, that could be as many as 3 billion people by as soon as 2030—and many are concerned that the U.S. is missing out on trade deals and more. “There are dozens of agreements happening,” said Delaney. “This game is being played without the U.S.”
The House could vote again on the measures as soon as Tuesday, but it’s unclear how the question will be presented, according to a June 14 article in The Wall Street Journal:
“GOP leaders have many procedural options at their disposal, but there are few easy paths to passing the full trade package. One option would be to try to pass the full Senate bill through a single vote in the House, combining the workers’-aid and fast-track provisions, essentially putting back together the two components they had separated last week. But GOP aides said that would cause Republicans to defect, and is not currently viewed as a viable solution. They split the issues into two votes because so many conservatives are opposed to the workers’ aid and didn’t want it to siphon support for the fast-track measure…. Republicans could also try to muscle through the Senate just the measure giving the president fast-track authority. For that to reach Mr. Obama’s desk, the Senate would have to reconsider the measure, shorn of the worker program. That would likely meet resistance among Senate Democrats, whose objections could block the legislation.”
Could the situation permanently derail fast-track for President Obama and the multinational trade agreements currently under discussion, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Probably not, according to Delaney. “While this is an obstacle, it seems like something that is not insurmountable,” he said. “There’s always something that can be done.”