WASHINGTON – The Obama administration needs to be more open with Congress to win support for a trans-Pacific trade pact under negotiation with 11 countries, an influential Democratic senator said Wednesday.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., chairman of a Senate panel overseeing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, told U.S. officials there’s been inadequate dialogue with lawmakers on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He also expressed frustration the administration has not yet obtained congressional authority needed to negotiate a deal that Congress could only approve or reject and not change — seen as vital for its eventual adoption.
The administration views the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as key to boosting American exports in Asia’s fast-growing markets and demonstrating U.S. economic leadership. The 12 nations, including Japan, failed to complete the deal by year’s end as hoped but will restart negotiations in early January.
The TPP aims to reduce tariffs on goods and services to close to zero and address issues beyond the scope of previous trade pacts, including labour and environmental standards and competitive advantages of state-owned companies.
“I don’t feel that we’ve had the open dialogue with Congress which instills confidence,” Cardin said. “We are operating in negotiations without trade promotional authority. I know that the administration will be seeking that. But I will just tell you this: There’s got to be a transparent process with Congress, particularly with TPP, which represents so many different countries.”
Senior Commerce Department official John Andersen told the panel the administration hopes to finalize the agreement early next year.
He said the trade promotional authority from Congress, also known as fast track, would then be critical for implementation.
Former White House international economic adviser Matthew Goodman went further, saying it was difficult to see how U.S. negotiators could convince other nations they can fulfil their end of the bargain without having fast track in place first.
Congressional aides say a senior Democrat and two Republican lawmakers on committees overseeing trade reached agreement last week on a policy for fast track authority, and legislation on it will be introduced in January.
Its prospects for passage into law remain unclear. A core of Democrat lawmakers are likely to oppose TPP because of concerns it could cost American jobs, so the administration will be counting on substantial backing from Republicans, who have traditionally been more supportive of free trade agreements.
Senators also urged the administration to use its economic engagement in Asia as leverage in seeking improvements in human rights and labour standards including in TPP partner countries like Vietnam.
The other TPP nations are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore.