Several major trade deals between Washington and its Asian and European partners face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. While U.S. officials are busy working out agreements with other nations, Congress is haggling over what should be in those pacts and how they should be approved.
Trade supporters hope to get Congress to agree on a set of goals for trade negotiations, and then step aside and let diplomats try to get a deal with other nations that reaches those goals.
Under the special “Trade Promotion Authority” known as the "fast track" process for complex deals, Congress can vote yes or no but may not insert amendments into a final treaty.
That is just fine with Representative Charles Boustany, who supports trade deals.
“The last thing we want are 435 members of the House and 100 senators trying to negotiate separately a trade deal,” he said.
Key committee leaders in the House and Senate are said to have agreed on an outline of a Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA. They will introduce a bipartisan bill in both houses early in the new year, but the measure faces significant opposition.
Washington is haggling with other countries over several trade deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnership with 11 Pacific nations. A second proposed deal is with the European Union, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership .
Senator Jeff Flake says trade deals could bring growth and jobs to the United States.
“Without the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority, it is difficult to foresee a credible scenario where we will be part of these trade agreements when they are concluded,” he said.
Supporters say cutting barriers to trade increases the flow of goods and services across borders, raises demand and creates jobs.
Previous deals cut tariffs on trade, but the new generation of agreements is intended to go further, resolving differences in regulations that make it harder to make or grow a product in one nation and sell it in another.
For example, U.S. poultry producers complain that changing European regulations have kept billions of dollars worth of their products out of European markets for 17 years. They hope a new deal will establish a uniform set of rules so they can sell more.
Critics speak out
Critics of these trade negotiations include some U.S. labor, environmental and consumer organizations. Lori Wallach speaks for the advocacy group Public Citizen and says those differing rules protect the health and safety of consumers, the financial system, people who use prescription drugs, and others.
She says changing health and safety rules is a job for open debate in Congress, not secretive negotiations on trade deals.
“[It is] a very undemocratic way of making decisions that will affect all of our lives,” said Wallach.
Wallach says American negotiators also should do more to stop U.S. trading partners from manipulating the value of their currencies to give their goods an unfair price advantage on world markets.
And she says the United States worked out trade deals through much of its history without “fast track,” and can make future deals in the same way - if they stand up to public scrutiny.