The House of Representatives will vote Friday on a bill to establish what’s called TPA, or trade promotion authority. A yes vote would be a huge win for conservatives, free-market principles and American leadership. Still, there’s a lot of confusion out there about what exactly TPA is.
It’s not a trade deal, but a process in Congress for considering trade deals. Sounds complicated, I know, but it’s actually pretty simple. If Congress establishes TPA, the public will be able to read the text of a trade deal well before Congress votes on it. So if you want to know more about all these trade deals being negotiated, you should support TPA.
Here’s why we need it. Under the Constitution, the president can negotiate a trade deal whenever he wants, however he wants, with whomever he wants. But no deal can become law unless Congress approves it. This division of power makes other countries think twice. They don’t want to make concessions to the president only to see Congress rewrite the deal. So for almost all of the past 80 years, Congress has used TPA or a process like it to maximize the U.S.’s leverage at the negotiating table.
Here’s how it works. Under TPA, when the president submits a trade deal, it gets an up-or-down vote—but only on three conditions.
First, the deal must be consistent with nearly 150 negotiating objectives set by Congress beforehand. Second, the president must consult with Congress throughout the negotiations. Third, the president must make the text of the deal public for 60 days before he signs it, so people can read it themselves. In the end, Congress gets the final say. Whatever the proposed changes are to the law, Congress must approve them.
When people say they’re against TPA, they’re often confusing it with TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (an unfortunate choice of acronyms, I know). The TPP is a trade deal the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other countries on the Pacific Rim. Nobody should be for or against the TPP agreement at this point because it doesn’t exist yet—it’s still being negotiated. That’s why we need to establish TPA first—the negotiations would never finish without it.
Here’s what will happen if the House establishes TPA.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership will not become law. TPA will not approve TPP; it will only strengthen the U.S.’s hand in the TPP negotiations. The participating countries will know the U.S. is acting in good faith, and they’ll put their best offers on the table.
The administration, meanwhile, will have to follow a list of specific requirements. Every member of Congress will get to read the current draft of the TPP agreement. Every member will also get regular briefings on the latest state of play and even get to attend negotiating rounds in person.
When the deal’s done, the president will have to publish the full text of the TPP agreement. Then and only then, the deal will go to Congress, where your elected representatives will get to vote it up or down.
Many critics say they don’t like TPA because they don’t know what’s in it. But the full text of TPA is available online; you can read the whole thing yourself. For instance, here’s section 108, clause (a), which reaffirms U.S. sovereignty: “No provision of any trade agreement entered into under section 103(b), nor the application of any such provision to any person or circumstance, that is inconsistent with any law of the United States, any State of the United States, or any locality of the United States shall have effect.”
Many of the president’s critics are rightly concerned that he too often keeps Congress in the dark. But TPA will turn on the lights. What TPA says to the president is pretty straightforward: “No backroom deals or secret handshakes. Show us the deal, and we’ll vote on it.” In short, TPA will hold the president accountable, and that’s why we need it ASAP.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.