Smooth Sailing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Comments by Flinders University PhD Candidate and former Washington Internship student, Jesse Barker Gale:

This week, the twelve-nation free trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was finalised by the trade representatives from the nations involved. While many of the details of the agreement remain under wraps, for Australian interests, it appears that Australia will gain long-desired access to the US sugar market and increased access to the Japanese rice market, and that US pharmaceutical companies were unsuccessful in their push to increase protection for biotech drugs from five years to twelve years. However, given the current state of American politics, it’s not a stretch to argue that the negotiation of the TPP, though an arduous slog, will be a relative breeze compared to dealing with a fractured United States Congress. There are three key points that could possibly derail the agreement: the departure of (establishment) Speaker John Boehner, the looming 2016 election, and President Obama.

Although Speaker Boehner has been a near-constant thorn in the side of the Obama Administration, the new speaker of the House (likely favourite House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy) will have to prove his mettle against the Obama Administration if he is to have any chance of controlling the increasingly fractured Republican Caucus. The hard right of the Republican Party, emboldened by the departure of the despised Boehner and leery of supporting an insufficiently conservative Speaker, will seek to kill the trade bill, in the same way that they opposed granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year.

Under regular circumstances, corralling the pro-trade Republicans and Democrats while fending off strident attacks from environmentalists, labour unions, and protectionists, is no easy task. Any Presidential election amplifies the political environment, and 2016 is no exception. Reflecting the diverse field, the Republican presidential candidates are split on the issue. Frontrunners (and non-politicians) Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina have all registered serious opposition to the deal. The next three, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz (based on polling data) have all come out in favour of the deal, while taking a swipe at the Obama Administration. The commonality is that they are all opposed to President Obama receiving credit for this deal. On the Democratic side, insurgent Bernie Sanders is adamantly against the deal, Martin O’Malley is similarly opposed, while front runner Hillary Clinton has recently come out against the deal, despite the fact as Secretary of State she was intimately involved in negotiations.

The final derailing issue is President Obama’s dim view of Congress. Stories of Obama’s aloofness are stable inside-the-beltway journalistic fare. The fact that both centres of power in DC, the Congress and the White House, have a constitutional role to fulfil in the authorization of international trade agreements mandates cooperation on this issue. If this trade agreement is as important as the Obama Administration claims it is, then the President will need to up his engagement with Congress to seal the deal. If anything unites this Congress, it is their deep-seated disapproval of Obama’s lack of communication with the Congress.

Despite matter the merits of the eventual arrangement, the odds of the deal passing Congress will depend greatly on the language in the completed agreement. Two key Senators, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch (whose committee has jurisdiction over the TPP) have announced their serious concerns over the agreement. Coupled with a Democratic Caucus that also has serious reservations about the agreement, Obama cannot afford any loss of support on this issue. The key selling point for this agreement is that it prevents China from being able to set the rules of global trade, a point President Obama made indelicately during his 2015 State of the Union Address. Relations between the executive and legislative branches of the US Government may be tense, but each side knows that delay and indecision only benefits China.


Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website.

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