US House passes standalone fast track bill giving president more authority in TPP talks

The House of Representatives stands at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington (Reuters / Joshua Roberts)
The US House has passed Trade Promotion Authority bill that boost presidential authority in negotiating trade deals. This version of the legislation is not linked to any other bill.

It was passed around noon today with a vote of 218-208.

The sister legislation to the TPA, the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), would provide assistance to workers who lose jobs as a consequence of the trade deals and foreign competition. It was easily defeated in the House last week. Initially lawmakers were set to vote once again on the TAA this week, but on Thursday they agreed to vote again on standalone TPA. Though the TPA and the TAA were passed the Senate, the TPA will now return to the Senate in its standalone form.

Obama has requested “fast-track” authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTiP) deals. Republican lawmakers back both initiatives, but the President’s own party is opposed.

READ MORE: Major TTIP vote at European Parliament postponed due to 'political divisions'

The vote was split along partisan lines, with Republicans overwhelmingly voting in favor at 190-50, and Democrats being strongly against with a 28-158.

The TPP, which seems to be close to coming into existence, covers countries which together comprise 40 percent of the global economy. President Obama has promoted the deal as a way of solidifying economic relations between the United States and fast-growing Asian countries.

Republicans in the House of Representatives sought to resurrect Barack Obama’s trade agenda and plans for a Pacific Rim free trade zone, joining with a small band of pro-trade Democrats to vote to grant the president the “fast-track” authority he needs to conclude such pacts – meaning that the president will be empowered to ask Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote on trade agreements without any debate or amendments.

“This is a vote to re-establish America’s credibility,” said Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the former Vice Presidential candidate that ran against the Obama who has now has been championing the President’s favored the legislation in the House.

Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-California) had different thoughts on the matter, despite being a top Democrat and traditional ally to the President. She said that she and members of the party were against the TPP, not against the president himself.

“This has been a longstanding dispute within the Democratic party having nothing to do with the president but everything to do with our bosses, our constituents,” she said.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is a vocal critic of the deal because of a provision called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). The provision would mediate disputes between foreign investors and a government, which Warren believes will inhibit regulation and pose a threat to American sovereignty.

ISDS is designed to address the problem of uneven national economic policies in an interconnected global economy. Foreign investors have to deal with the risk of having their investments seized if and when a new government comes to power and decides to nationalize the businesses of foreign industries. While this isn’t a risk in a stable company with a strong judicial system like the United States, it is a genuine risk in other countries without such stability. ISDS is an arbitration process that uses sanctions to put pressure on governments who have unfairly seized property.

That means that ISDS would allow foreign investors to make complaints against the United States, which is a point that many take issue with. Warren argues that the agreement could “tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations.”

READ MORE: Wikileaks releases ‘largest’ trove of docs exposing secret TiSA trade deal

Many opponents of the TPP worry that multinational corporations could argue that environmental, financial and minimum wage regulations could qualify for a dispute under ISDS, potentially costing the United States expensive damages.

Also controversial are secretly negotiated provisions called the “Healthcare Annex,” which was only seen by the public when they were published by WikiLeaks.

The secret TPP negotiations showed that the Healthcare Annex has been seeking to regulate state schemes for medicines and medical devices. WikiLeaks said "it forces healthcare authorities to give big pharmaceutical companies more information about national decisions on public access to medicine."

Legal privileges such as patents are instituted in to encourage research and development, allowing pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs without worrying about someone immediately copying them. These privileges expire eventually, allowing generic versions of the drugs that come to market.

The TPP has been lobbied by large pharmaceutical company to include these provisions to further delay the introduction of generic drugs.

"The leaked TPP document "shows that the pact could expose Medicare to pharmaceutical company attacks and constrain future policy reforms, including the ability of the US government to curb rising and unsustainable drug prices," consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen said in a statement.