House passes Obama's 'fast-track' authority to negotiate trade deal

U.S. President Barack Obama (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)
President Barack Obama has succeeded in obtaining controversial “fast-track” approval for his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in the House of Representatives.

The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), as the “fast-track” powers are officially called, passed by a vote of 219-211, giving President Obama an unlikely victory. In a preceding vote, the House struck down a proposal to extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, providing assistance to workers who would lose jobs as a consequence of trade deals.

With both the Senate and the House adopting “fast-track” authorization, Congress will only be able to vote on the finalized agreement, without the opportunity to offer amendments.

Many Democrats defied the President’s request to approve the TAA, contributing to the measure’s defeat with a 302-126 vote. After the TPA was approved, a motion was made to re-consider that vote, opening the possibility the House may approve TAA next week.

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First established in the 1970s, the TAA expires at the end of the current fiscal year. The proposed legislation, rejected today in the House, would extend the program through 2020 and expand the benefits to public and service sector workers. Only manufacturing sector workers, fisherman, and farmers are currently eligible for the program.

President Obama made the rare appearance on Capitol Hill earlier on Friday, holding hour-long talks with lawmakers and trying to persuade House Democrats into backing the bill. Obama has had a hard time persuading his party to support the deal, as the Democrats’ traditional voter base of unions and labor organizations came out strongly against it. Republicans, on the other hand, threw their support behind the TPP.

READ MORE: Corporations shell out $1.2mn in Senate contributions to fast-track TPP

The bill aims to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trade deal that would link 40 percent of the world's economy. Along with the United States, 11 other countries have taken part in TPP negotiations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

The most notable issue about the TPP is that excludes China, and serves to counter its growing economic and diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

While supporters of the TPP say it will open up new markets for American products, opponents have raised concerns over a number of issues, including currency manipulation, environmental protections, internet privacy, and transparency. Additionally, they say it will harm Americans workers, while any benefits it may produce will go to corporations.

The deal has also been criticized for lack of transparency, as the contents of the TPP has been kept in strict secrecy. Rumors that corporate lobbyists have been drafting the substance of the deal have been given a boost by recent leaked revelations that corporations would be allowed to sue governments in private courts over profits lost due to regulation.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed an amendment that would have struck down this arrangement, known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system (ISDS). Liberal Democrats have blasted the ISDS as a means corporations could use to undermine US laws.

The White House has argued that some degree of secrecy was necessary for negotiating a good deal, and that critics ought to point to specific issues in the TPP, as opposed to criticizing previous free trade pacts.

However, one former Obama campaign adviser who had clearance to access TPP drafts, wrote that disclosing anything from the documents would be a criminal offense.

“The government has created a perfect Catch 22: The law prohibits us from talking about the specifics of what we’ve seen, allowing the president to criticize us for not being specific,” Michael Wessel wrote in Politico. “Instead of simply admitting that he disagrees with me—and with many other cleared advisors—about the merits of the TPP, the president instead pretends that our specific, pointed criticisms don’t exist.”