Trade Issues Remain Low-Profile in Congress

UNITED STATES - APRIL 12: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks at a 'Countdown to Tax Day' news conference in the Capitol to address the tax in increases in President Obama's FY 2014 budget. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini and Elahe Izadi
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Michael Catalini Elahe Izadi
Oct. 23, 2013, 2 p.m.

To hear law­makers tell it, ef­forts to move trade le­gis­la­tion through the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, while earn­est and on­go­ing, have hit snags in the 113th Con­gress.

Sev­er­al big pieces of le­gis­la­tion are slowly wind­ing their way through the com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing bills deal­ing with trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity and the pro­posed Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship.

Ways and Means Trade Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Dev­in Nunes, R-Cal­if., has not ruled out hold­ing hear­ings on TPA, which in­cludes a “fast-track” pro­vi­sion al­low­ing the pres­id­ent to sub­mit trade bills to Con­gress for straight up-or-down votes. But he has not sched­uled any hear­ings ded­ic­ated to the is­sue through the end of the year. Con­gress last passed TPA in 2002, and that law ex­pired in 2007. The meas­ure also sets up a frame­work for ne­go­ti­at­ing trade agree­ments.

While both Nunes and sub­com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Charles Ran­gel, D-N.Y., avoid polit­ic­al snip­ing, fric­tion is there non­ethe­less.

“All I can tell you is what I know is that the pres­id­ent in his pub­lic state­ments has in­dic­ated an in­terest in the fast-track and the TPA,” Ran­gel said. “Whatever is go­ing on, Demo­crats are not in­volved.”

Nunes said the House has a chance to lead on trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity be­cause, as he put it, House and Sen­ate Demo­crats have reached a stale­mate.

“That’s why I’m try­ing to take the tem­per­at­ure on TPA,” Nunes said. “I’d like to see if we can get that through. If the Demo­crats don’t want to play ball, then I think we should try to do move that on our own.”

Part of the reas­on Nunes hasn’t set up more pub­lic hear­ings on trade is­sues is that they tip off po­ten­tial trad­ing part­ners to U.S. ne­go­ti­at­ing po­s­i­tions. Such talks are best held be­hind closed doors, the think­ing goes.

“Any time you get the cam­er­as in front of con­gress­men, it can be fun,” Nunes said.

Many mem­bers also were not in Con­gress in 2002, and so Nunes faces an edu­ca­tion­al hurdle as he ex­plains TPA’s im­port­ance — and this trade au­thor­ity both­ers some mem­bers be­cause out­wardly it ap­pears to give de­fer­ence to the White House. Re­pub­lic­ans, though, point out that Con­gress is heav­ily in­volved at the out­set, au­thor­ing ne­go­ti­at­ing ob­ject­ives, for ex­ample.

“Mem­bers are com­ing up to speed, but it just takes time,” Nunes said.

An­oth­er key to mov­ing TPA, say Re­pub­lic­ans, is in­creased in­volve­ment from the White House. If Pres­id­ent Obama en­gaged more on the is­sue, that would help speed things along, they ar­gue.

But some off Cap­it­ol Hill point to the fact that Obama has been push­ing harder on trade is­sues than dur­ing his first term. In a Septem­ber speech to the Ex­port Coun­cil, Obama spe­cific­ally said trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity was needed.

“It’s ob­vi­ously help­ful when you have an ad­min­is­tra­tion and pres­id­ent who are talk­ing more about how this is more im­port­ant,” said Chris­toph­er Wenk, seni­or dir­ect­or of in­ter­na­tion­al policy at the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce. “There’s a steady drum­beat on how im­port­ant it is.”

Stacy Kaper contributed to this article.
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