Congress, after months of delays searching for a bipartisan compromise in the Senate Finance Committee, is now fully engaged in the trade policy debate with a bill to renew trade promotion authority (TPA).  The House and Senate have held committee hearings on the same bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, and will be debating essentially the same bill on the floor in each chamber. The Obama Administration is in full support of the bill as introduced.

The bill is about 90-95 percent the same on content as the TPA bill written last year on negotiating objectives and ‘fast track’ legislative procedures, but with several critical additions to address key concerns.  It includes: a new procedure to allow the House and Senate to independently strip a trade agreement of TPA protection; increases consultations and transparency in trade negotiations; and sets a new negotiating objective on human rights.  It does not contain any new language on currency manipulation even though the issue has been extensively discussed in recent months and amendments will be attempted in both houses.

A process for stripping a trade agreement of TPA protection, known as a ‘procedural disapproval resolution’, was included in the 2014 TPA bill and the 2002 TPA law.  Only the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees can bring up a procedural disapproval resolution in committee.  It only takes effect if it is approved by both the Finance and Ways and Means Committees and passed within a 60-day period by the full House and Senate.

The new mechanism to strip an agreement of TPA protection is called a ‘consultation and compliance resolution’ (CCR).  Congress would remove TPA protection if the Executive branch did not comply with consultation with Congressional requirements or failed to meet Congressional negotiating objectives.  The CCR works differently in the House and the Senate, but in both houses it is triggered by the trade committee unfavorably reporting a free trade agreement implementing bill, which rarely has ever happened.  In the Senate, the power to bring up the CCR rests with all members of the Finance Committee, as their vote unfavorably reporting an FTA implementing bill automatically triggers it.  In the House, if the Ways and Means Committee unfavorably reports a trade agreement implementing bill, any House member can introduce the CCR following the filing of the committee’s unfavorable report.  Either the House or the Senate can strip an agreement of TPA protection independently of the other.

Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee members and staff have traditionally had access to trade agreement negotiating documents.    The 2014 TPA bill covered all members of Congress, but not their staff.  This bill for the first time would statutorily ensure that staffs for members of Congress with appropriate security clearances have access to trade agreement negotiating documents.  According to a report from Inside U.S. Trade, the trade committees are now in the process of negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).

The bill requires for the first time the USTR to publish the full text of any trade agreements at least 60 days before it is signed. This would be the working text of the agreement, not the legally scrubbed version.  The bill would also create a new position of Transparency Officer in the USTR office that would consult with Congress and advise the USTR on transparency policies and engage and assist the public.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch (UT-R) and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Ryan (WI-R) agreed that on the same day that the TPA bill moves through their respective committees a Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) bill will also be voted on by the committees.  The legislation is popular among Democrats and provides assistance to workers whose jobs may have been displaced by international trade.  It has been a part of past debates over TPA and has been used to attract Democratic support.  It is expected to have the same role this time.

The original language in the 2014 TPA bill is not at issue.  While most of the additions to the TPA bill were proposed by the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee Wyden (OR-D), they generally have broad support.  Members of House and Senate want to be seen as having a fully informed debate and moving at deliberate speed.  Allowing approved staff to review trade documents will equip Members to speak more authoritatively and be fully informed when voting.  Finally, the CCR provision provides a means to pull TPA back if the committees find a glaring problem in the content of the implementation bill.

This cautiousness caused the Senate Finance Committee to hold a second day of hearings after Chairman Hatch had said there would be only one hearing.  A second day was added at the request of several Democratic Senators to hear from the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the head of the AFL-CIO union.  It probably did not change any policy decisions, but made those in attendance more certain that they had heard a wide range of views.

In addition to the TPA and TAA bills, Congress is also considering a bill on customs and enforcement issues, one on renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences and an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).  Amendments to any of these bills could help shape the trade policy agenda.

For those trade policy participants primarily interested in lowering tariffs and reducing non-tariff barriers to trade, the policy detours of the last few months have been a frustrating time.  Major policy decisions, like trade policy, are best made in a bipartisan manner because it gets a wide set of options on the table and allows all sides to make their arguments.  Close final votes are expected in both houses.  Policymakers can then move forward knowing the issues that continue to need attention.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade and @World_Farmers on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.