March 2, 2016 | By

Guest Commentary — Who are the TPP Gatekeepers?

Staff members walk past the US Capitol dome. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is to ever see the light of day, it will need to find its way out of the congressional muck. So which members of Congress are key to passing the TPP, and where do they currently stand in the debate?

Below is a list of five TPP gatekeepers. These are the members of Congress who hold key leadership roles and will thus have disproportionate influence whenever it comes to passing the TPP. Importantly, this list only includes those members of Congress who may potentially make up the coalition to pass the TPP. In other words, it disregards members who voted against Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or those who are likely to vote against the TPP no matter what. With that, here are the members of Congress and the Senate who are likely to determine the fate of the TPP:

Kevin Brady (R-Texas)

Congressman Kevin Brady serves as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee—one of the two committees that deals with trade policy. To give a quick bit of US politics background, committee chairmen play critical roles in setting agendas and, importantly, have various tools at their disposal to get their preferred legislative outcomes. Brady’s committee is tasked with holding mock markups and voting on the draft implementing legislation of the TPP (these markups and votes are not binding on the administration, but they provide an opportunity for committee members to register specific concerns before the final bill is sent to Congress.)

POLITICO reports that Brady thinks “passing that agreement is difficult but doable.” He has reservations—specifically over areas like tobacco and pharmaceuticals. But Brady has a generally positive view of the deal, saying it has the “potential to positively shape the rules for trade in the huge Asia-Pacific region,” adding that it is “important” for Congress to vote on the deal.

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

Senator Orrin Hatch is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The counterpart to the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Finance plays a key role in providing input to the TPP’s implementing legislation, and helps to demonstrate whether the bill has enough support in Congress to pass.

Hatch also has reservations over the TPP, such as tobacco and biologics. Hatch is considerably more pessimistic, however, about the prospects for the TPP. In a statement earlier this month, he conveyed doubts that the deal would be passed anytime soon: “Congress does not rubberstamp trade agreements, and we will not do so in this case. We cannot short circuit the process. With an agreement of this significance, we must be more vigilant, more deliberative, and more accountable than ever before. We need to take the necessary time to carefully review the agreement and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the administration.”

Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)

Senator Ron Wyden is the ranking—or second-most senior—member of the Senate Finance Committee. Notably, he is one of only 13 Democrats in the Senate who voted to approve Trade Promotion Authority. Also, if Democrats overtake the Senate in November, Wyden will likely become the committee’s chairman next January.

Wyden speaks favorably about the TTP, and in a town hall earlier this month, he defended the deal, saying that “one-fifth of Oregon jobs come from trade,” and added that he wants there to be a larger market for Oregon goods.
While Wyden seems likely to vote for the TPP, his support isn’t guaranteed. One issue that may flip his vote is tobacco. Wyden strongly supports a current provision in the TPP that carves out tobacco from the controversial investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. If that provision is gutted or qualified—as many Republicans hope—it’s unclear whether Wyden will still support the deal. In his words, “I pushed very, very, very aggressively for that tobacco provision to be part of this…and so I feel very strongly about that provision.”

Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)

Congressman Paul Ryan serves as the speaker of the house, making him Congress’s chief administrator as well as his party’s top leader. What’s more, he was formerly chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, meaning his voice on trade matters carries extra weight.

So far, Ryan has appeared unenthused (at best) about the TPP as currently negotiated. In an interview earlier this month on Fox News, Ryan said that if the deal was “brought to floor today, it wouldn’t pass.” He added that “there are things that need to be addressed” in order to get the necessary votes, and expanded that this includes everything from cross-border data flows, dairy, biologics, and intellectual property rights protections.”
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Ryan seems unlikely to become a spokesman for the deal anytime soon. When asked whether he could try to get the deal passed during a lame duck session of Congress, Ryan responded, “I’m the speaker of the House. I’m not the dictator of the House.”      

Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)

Senator Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, where he plays a key role in consolidating votes. Similar to Speaker Ryan, McConnell has expressed significant doubt about the TPP as negotiated. In an interview with the Washington Post, McConnell has made clear that he will resist moving the deal before President Obama leaves office. “[TPP] certainly shouldn’t come before the election…I have some serious problems with what I think it is.” He added, that he thinks President Obama would “be making a big mistake to try to have [the TPP] voted on during the election.” Specifically, McConnell has raised concerns over the tobacco carve-out (Kentucky, his home state, is one of the nation’s largest tobacco producers).

What should we take away from all this? Mainly, the coalition that the White House needs to support the TPP is thin and narrowing. And while it’s necessary that the leaders listed above support the deal for it to pass, it is not sufficient. To prevent further defections in Congress, the Obama administration will need to intensify efforts to flip votes. It would be wise not to squander these efforts on members—mainly Democrats—who are predisposed to opposing the deal. 


Phil Levy is senior fellow on the global economy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously he was associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He was formerly a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2003 to 2006, he served first as senior economist for trade for President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and then as a member of Secretary of State Rice’s Policy Planning Staff, covering international economic matters. Before working in government, he was a faculty member of Yale University’s Department of Economics for nine years and spent one of those as academic director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization.

His academic writings have appeared in such outlets as The American Economic ReviewEconomic Journal, and theJournal of International Economics. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy magazine’s online Shadow Government section and writes on topics including trade policy, economic relations with China, and the European economic crisis. Dr. Levy has testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Joint Economic Committee, the House Committee on Ways and Mean, and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He received his PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 1994 and his AB in Economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1988.


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