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Bringing Trade Agreements into the 21st Century

Trade Promotion Authority — and the quality jobs, wages, and critical environmental and labor protections that would come from it — is an important step forward for the President’s trade agenda and for leveling the playing field for American workers.

The Senate and House are taking up the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 — an overhaul of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that would bring how we trade into the 21st century. TPA — and the quality jobs, wages, and critical environmental and labor protections that would come from it — is an important step forward for the President’s trade agenda and for leveling the playing field for American workers. 

Trade authority has a long bipartisan history, dating back to President Franklin Roosevelt. In the decades since the New Deal Congress passed the first trade negotiating legislation, Congress has renewed and modernized that authority 18 different times, under both Democratic and Republican Presidents alike. 

Through Trade Promotion Authority, Congress does three important things:

  • It defines Congress’s specific objectives for U.S. trade negotiators to follow when crafting an agreement.
  • It lays out how trade negotiators should work with Congress before and during the negotiations.
  • It puts in place the congressional procedures for legislation on trade agreements.

Congress last passed TPA legislation in 2002, and an update is more than overdue.

Passing a modernized TPA is important for two reasons.

First, it will help us close the deal on negotiations in the Asia-Pacific on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP), the most progressive trade agreement in history. It is an important part of the President’s middle-class economics agenda. TPA provides a critical path toward opening more new markets to American goods and services — and supporting the good jobs and wages that come from exports.

The President has made clear he’ll settle for nothing less than a deal that locks in American values, like tough environmental and labor standards. That’s good for our economy, our businesses, and most importantly, for our workers.

TPP will be the greenest trade agreement in history — protecting oceans and combating wildlife trafficking, illegal fishing, and illegal logging across a vast swath of the globe. The countries in the agreement produce $2 out of every $5 of global economic output. And big economies have big impacts on the environment, so this standard really matters.

TPP will also raise labor standards across our trading partners and help raise wages here at home. That’s because enforceable requirements on minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health are at the center of the agreement. And that’s because trade jobs are good jobs, paying up to 18 percent more on average than non-trade jobs.

TPP will be good for our national security, too — increasing America’s presence in the fastest-growing region of the world and bolstering the economic vitality at home that underpins our military strength. Failure to get TPP over the finish line could relegate us to a future where we sit on the sidelines, letting China write rules with lower standards that diminish our relevance in Asia.

America is stronger, at home and abroad, when we write the rules; when our workers compete on a level playing field; and when our iconic products and services are more easily sold to the 95 percent of potential customers who live outside our borders. That’s what TPP does. It levels the playing field for American workers. And when American workers can compete fairly, we win.

A modern TPA will help the President get this done. That’s the first reason a modern TPA matters so much.

The second reason is that it holds future Administrations to the higher standards President Obama has placed at the center of the current negotiations.

Today’s bill, for the first time, reflects the bipartisan agreement on May 10, 2007 — spearheaded by House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Congressmen Charlie Rangel and Sandy Levin — that included groundbreaking provisions concerning the protection of labor, the environment, and intellectual property rights. The TPA legislation in Congress will require future Administrations to take up the mantle of labor and environmental protections that the Obama administration is fighting for.

No trade negotiating authority law has ever enshrined the high standards the President has been championing. We now have the opportunity to change that.

The new bill also updates how we deal with issues we could hardly have contemplated at the turn of the century. The last update to negotiation authority predates much of the explosion of activity on the Internet and the emergence of the digital economy. Facebook and Twitter did not even exist, the iPod was brand new, and most Americans were logging onto the web through a dial-up connection or had no connectivity at all. And it didn’t address emerging issues affecting our ability to compete in the global economy, such as leveling the playing field between state-owned enterprises and our private firms. The new TPA bill does that.

So, today’s bill helps us move forward on trade in a smart, transparent way by:

  • Enforcing our values. Just two decades ago, the idea that labor and environmental protections should be core, enforceable provisions in our trade agreements was at best an afterthought. Since that time, progressive voices have called time and again for action to put labor and environment on par with other commercial commitments. This bill will authorize that for the first time in history.
  • Holding future Presidents accountable. This TPA bill is Congress’s best chance to ensure that, no matter who the President is, he or she will be held accountable for ensuring that America’s trade policy reflects progressive values.
    • It gives Congress new ability to revoke trade authority procedures from trade agreements if the Executive Branch has failed or refused to notify or consult with the Congress and the public in accordance with congressional guidelines.
    • It includes strong sovereignty safeguards that make absolutely clear that nothing in our trade agreement can change U.S. law without congressional approval.
    • It requires that trade agreements encourage good governance and rule of law in an effort to promote respect for human rights.
    • It addresses currency matters as part of a broader effort to level the playing field for American workers and businesses.
    • It includes tough new directives on how our trading partners treat the flow of digital trade that will help promote a free and open internet.
  • Increasing transparency. This TPA bill will take additional steps to ensure that Congress and the public play a meaningful role in our trade negotiations. Today’s TPA requires detailed and comprehensive public summaries of American negotiating objectives, and when the agreement is inked, the text must be made publicly available online 60 days before the President signs any agreement. It strengthens Congress’s role in overseeing negotiations and creates House and Senate Advisory Groups on Negotiations to consult and provide advice to ongoing negotiations; and requires regularly scheduled meetings. And it creates a Chief Transparency Officer to consult with Congress on transparency policy, coordinate transparency in trade negotiations, and engage and assist the public.

Here’s the bottom line: 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside of our borders. We can’t afford to close ourselves off from those opportunities. A 21st century TPA is America’s chance to modernize our trade policy by locking in our progressive values and putting American workers first. We look forward to working with Congress to pass this bipartisan bill.