Late last month, the White House notified Congress that it planned to begin negotiating a comprehensive trade and investment agreement with the European Union. Talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are expected to begin in June—and that’s when the House Energy and Commerce Committee will step up its involvement.
In February, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman told Bloomberg TV that “everything is on the table” in the trans-Atlantic trade talks. Because tariffs—under the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means Committee—between the countries are already low, negotiations are expected to focus on the divergent regulations in the U.S. and E.U., as well as security and consumer protection.
That falls under the broad jurisdiction of Energy and Commerce, whose members oversee food and drug safety, consumer protection, and environmental-quality issues—all topics expected to arise during trade talks with the European Union.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative will also consult with the committee as the TTIP is negotiated (the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade will take the lead on those issues), and it will brief lawmakers’ offices upon request. It is safe to expect oversight from the committee as well as its members providing direct feedback to the USTR.
Supporters of a trade deal on both sides of the Atlantic tout the agreement as a way to pump new energy into the post-financial-crisis economies of the United States and Europe. The Obama administration estimates that the partnership could create 13 million U.S. and European jobs.
But consumer-advocacy groups and others fear that as the U.S. and E.U. strive to “harmonize” their regulations as part of the deal, they will move toward the lowest common denominator, stripping away regulations related to food safety, chemicals, and the environment in Europe and to drug safety and the financial sector in America. Democrats such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the ranking member on the subcommittee, have advocated strong consumer protections and are expected to continue to support that position as talks advance.
Some are skeptical that the White House and European leaders can meet the ambitious goal set by the E.U. of finalizing a TTIP deal by 2014. Claude Barfield, a former consultant to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the long U.S.-E.U. history of trying to achieve some regulatory convergence leaves little hope for a major breakthrough in the next year and a half. That’s especially true because the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership is supposed to be finalized this year, taking resources away from the trans-Atlantic talks.
The committee is therefore likely to be talking about a potential trade deal with Europe for some time.
This article appears in the April 18, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as U.S. and E.U. Will Gnaw on Trade Agreement.