LAST week, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman defended the President's trade agenda by spending nearly two hours apiece answering questions from members of the Senate Finance Committee and then the House Ways & Means Committee.
During President Barack Obama's "State of the Union" address, Republicans quickly rose to applaud his mention of the need to pass trade promotion authority (TPA). As some members of the Senate Finance Committee noted, however, Obama is going to need to make sure he's "all in" when pushing Congress to grant him this fast track authority.
Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had the negotiating authority Obama is seeking under TPA renewal, but it also has been a close, bipartisan battle in recent decades. The last time TPA passed was in 2002, when the House approved it narrowly by a 215-212 vote, with 190 Republicans and 27 Democrats making up the majority. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 64-34, with 20 Democrats voting in favor of it.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said during the hearing he worries that Obama's already seven veto threats to the Republican-controlled House and Senate don't indicate that the President is going to continue the partisan foot-dragging.
"We're in; I know you're in, but I hope the President is," Roberts said to Froman.
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) echoed Roberts' sentiments and added that Obama needs to be engaged on Capitol Hill "as we try to push (TPA) across the finish line."
Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), a former USTR ambassador, added that the President needs to be out there pushing to open new markets because 95% of the world's population lives outside the U.S., and 45% or more of U.S. exports currently go to just 10% of the world.
As Froman said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors the day after the address, "America has always been strongest when it speaks with one voice, and that's exactly what trade promotion authority helps us do."
During the hearings, Froman told members that passing TPA "puts Congress in the driver's seat to define U.S. negotiating objectives and priorities for trade agreements." He added that it clarifies and strengthens public and congressional oversight by requiring consultations and transparency throughout the negotiating process.
For instance, there has been plenty of skepticism regarding Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and the little information that's being provided to the public.
In the Senate hearing, one attendee was escorted out of the room after shouting at Froman that TPP is being "negotiated in secret" and that fast track authority would only allow the Administration to "rush it through Congress" without the American public knowing what's in a final deal.
However, Froman testified that before any TPP deal is made, Congress and the public will get a look at the final negotiated text. He added that commodity groups are being consulted to see if agreements can be reached that attain a level of market access palatable to their industries.
Froman said no other area of policy reflects closer coordination between the executive branch and Congress than trade policy. Agriculture can be the locomotive paving the way for new markets for U.S.-grown goods. It's just time to make sure everyone recognizes what's at stake.