Monday, December 22, 2014

U.S. Domestic Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Estelle Ou

       Since 2012, President Barack Obama has called for the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from Congress in order to support U.S. negotiators in FTAs (including Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP). The TPA, or Fast-Track Authority (FTA), is a key element of defining U.S. congressional authority and providing credibility of legislative implementation of negotiated free trade agreements. With Presidential TPA, TPP provisions will pass through the U.S. Congress without being subject to filibuster in the Senate or further Congressional amendments (United..., 2014). In other words, the TPP provisions will not be hindered in procedural delays or blocked by U.S. lawmakers after negotiations have been completed with other member nations. However, as of now, the President has not been able to acquire TPA from the 113th Congress, which consists of a Republican-Led House of Representatives and a Democratic-Led Senate. Many members of the Democratic Party are concerned with the opinions of lower- and middleclass income individuals, for they consist of the majority voting bloc for the Democratic Party, hence the reluctance of the Democratic-led Senate to approve TPA. Consequently, countries such as Japan have used the absence of TPA as an excuse to prolong TPP negotiations, causing uncertainty in further development

       This paper identifies the main sources of concern and skepticism from lower- and middle- income class individuals about the non-transparency of TPP negotiations, limited participation of U.S. states' representatives, and potential distraction from mainstream issues through the lens of American values such as faith in democratic participation, federalism, and prioritization of domestic issues.

Non-Transparent Negotiations

       Although TPP negotiations are no more non-transparent than any other FTA negotiations, the scope of the TPP, involving 12 other countries across the Pacific Rim, has caused more anxiety among uninformed public than previous FTAs. Democratic values, particularly in the United States, amplify the negativity that is associated with ambitious trade deals negotiated without public input. Therefore, there may be inevitable assumptions that the Obama administration's call for TPA, instead of regular legislative procedures, may be related to fear of extreme public opposition and pressure to amend the agreement once proposed provisions are revealed. As the American people already have limited influence on trade policies, the granting of TPA would further undermine the ability for citizens to monitor negotiations, hindering the treasured practice of democracy. Thus, as elections approach, Congressmen cannot afford to ignore the interests of their constituencies.

Limited Participation from Individual States

       Official participation from individual states has been limited in TPP 19 negotiations. The limitation might cause dilemma for state governments to legitimize the negotiated outcome, as TPP provisions may conflict with the existing state legislations governing local businesses. There have been leaked TPP texts in which analysts claim that U.S. states and the federal government would be obliged to bring existing and future policies into compliance with expansive norms set forth in 26 proposed TPP chapters (Wallach 2012). Particularly, if any state currently has laws that are inconsistent with TPP provisions, foreign corporations may have the right to file lawsuits against the state government for violating the agreement. Furthermore insufficient states' participation in TPP negotiation, on the other hand, might suggest less responsibility for states to implement provisions that benefit the welfare of state residents, challenging the purpose of a state government that is more sensitive to the well-being of its residents. Therefore, granting TPA without defining states' participation might undermine the principle of U.S. federalism and result in backlash from conservative citizens and consumer advocacy groups.

Distraction from Domestic Issues

       Although President Obama came into his second-term with an agenda of boosting the economy, which the push for free trade agreement fits right in with, several challenges have emerged and hindered him from focusing efforts on the TPP in the past two years. Recently, with policies addressing the rise of the Islamic State of Israel and Syria, and increasing fear of the Ebola virus, the Obama administration has received countless criticism, from both Congress and the public, for its incompetence in confrontingforeign issues. As a result, President Obama's foreign policy approval ratings and popularity are at a record low (Nelson 2014). Furthermore, as the 2016 Presidential election approaches and political parties seek to boost their credibility, domestic issues, such as immigration reform, health care reform, and income inequality have become priority issues among both the Democratic and Republican parties, not to mention mainstream media. Although the TPP is a potentially significant issue for the United States, however, since the beginning of TPP negotiations in 2010, U.S. news media have not covered it as frequently as other domestic issues, resulting in lack of public knowledge about its existence. Therefore, the passing of TPP will neither likely be a mainstream topic on news media for the 2016 Presidential elections, nor, for the majority of citizens and voters, a major means of evaluating the efficiency of the newly elected Congress. Thus, many Congressmen may see a push for foreign trade policy as unnecessary for President Obama's time remaining in office and even a distraction from mainstream issues.


       Despite the Democratic-led Senate's non-approval of TPA, the results of the 2014 November midterm elections might suggest a different approach. Results show the Republican Party winning the majority of seats in the Senate. Thus, as the Republican Party has been known to favor free trade agreements more than Democratic Party, the possibility of granting TPA might be higher. However, the aforementioned major domestic oppositions could still prevent the Obama administration from acquiring the sixty votes needed to approve the TPA in the new Senate and House as the newly elected Republican Congress has indicated that domestic issues such as health care reform, immigration reform, and energy resource investments are priority issues to tackle with. Thus, despite increased discussion on the benefits of a Republican-led Congress for TPP negotiations, actual approval remains to be observed.


United States Senate. November 19th. 2014,

Wallach, Lori . ''A Stealth Attack on Democratic Governance.'' The American Prospect.
March 13th. 2012.

Nelson, Colleen McCain . ''Obama Foreign Policy Approval Rating Hits Low-
Water Mark.'' The Wall Street Journal. October 15th. 2014.

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