Fast-Track Set to Expire, Congress Yawns

Posted June 12, 2007 at 6:27pm

With just 17 days left before the White House’s fast-track authority lapses, you’d think big-business lobbyists pushing for its renewal already would be in full swing. Instead, they say they are only now planning to step up their efforts and many acknowledge that absent some kind of trade lobbying miracle, fast-track will expire and could take months, if not years, before Congress renews it.

Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said there is not a lot of discussion from Members about renewing fast-track, which gives the administration the ability to negotiate free-trade deals that Congress cannot amend but merely approve or disapprove on a simple up-or-down vote. And Wenk said “it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario” in which the authority does not lapse at the end of this month.

“We’re just kind of facing the realities of the climate,” he said. “I think that obviously the president and the administration made a push for this, and I think you’ll see more of that in the weeks ahead. Hopefully they will start to do more.”

Fast-track, also known as trade promotion authority, already faced an uphill battle this Congress since Democrats are generally more skeptical of free-trade agreements than their GOP counterparts. Democrats, led by House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), brokered a deal with the administration on pending trade deals with specific countries, but that did not include fast-track. In addition, the president, who is using what miniscule political capital he may have to push for immigration reform, isn’t necessarily going to focus on its renewal.

That has given a boost to many labor groups and trade critics on and off Capitol Hill.

“Any time we can buy time, it’s good,” said Alan Tonelson, a fellow with the U.S. Business & Industry Council. “It enables Members and the public to learn more about these trade policies, and the more they learn, the less they like them.” He added that as the 2008 elections draw closer, tough trade votes will become more and more unlikely. “So in those respects, delay works very strongly for the cause of dramatically improved trade policies,” he said.

Brigitte Gwyn, the top trade lobbyist for the Business Roundtable, a point group for TPA renewal, said that last week her association brought in a dozen of its CEO members to meet with lawmakers to push for approval of the pending free-trade agreements with Panama, Peru, Korea and Colombia and to stress the need for fast-track.

Next week, the BRT-backed Trade for America Coalition plans to send a letter to all Members encouraging speedy renewal. The coalition also will launch its Web site and will step up its outside-the-Beltway organizing, Gwyn said. “That will continue throughout the summer and into the fall,” she added, indicating that big business is planning for a long trek, well past the June 30 deadline.

Gwyn said the Trade for America Coalition, which started earlier this year, has enlisted about 400 members from a variety of industries including Boeing, UPS, MetLife, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.

While the chamber is involved in the Trade for America Coalition, it also is planning to kick off its own trade-focused grass-roots and media campaign in the coming week, Wenk said. He added that the chamber’s campaign will call for TPA renewal as well as approval for the four pending trade agreements. He declined to say how much the chamber plans to spend on the effort but said “we’re putting a good chunk of change, putting our money where our mouth is.”

Tonelson said he spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill briefing House Members and staff who are part of a trade working group that is opposed to the current free-trade model. The group is co-chaired by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine).

Tonelson said there’s no need for renewal now anyway because the four pending agreements already fall under fast-track (since they were signed before it expires) and because there is no prospect of a breakthrough in the stalled Doha round of World Trade Organization talks.

Today, Michaud and a bipartisan collection of Members, including Reps. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) and Phil Hare (D-Ill.), are holding an event on the Cannon Terrace to register their opposition to the Korea free-trade agreement.

Peter Chandler, Michaud’s chief of staff, said his boss does not favor TPA renewal. Like Tonelson, Chandler said his side sees an advantage in allowing fast-track to expire.

“If there’s a lapse, everyone can take a breath, take a pause and say ‘yes we need trade, but it needs to be fair, and how can we go about doing that,’” Chandler said. “This administration has a certain view of it, and it’s a view that we do not share. Why would we continue to give a blank check to continue down that path for another two years?”

Chandler said the lapse also would give Congress a chance to evaluate other aspects of globalism including legislation on Chinese currency manipulation, which is being introduced this week. “If you can have a pause in the whole situation, we can look at the issue holistically and find some common ground,” he said.

Pro-trade lobbyist Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade — whose members include McGraw-Hill, Boeing and General Motors — agreed that time is not on his side, adding that there was a conundrum with the Doha round. Without TPA, the U.S. negotiating positions could be undermined in those already stalled talks, but without a Doha agreement on the table lawmakers are hard-pressed to see the need for immediate renewal.

“The danger is that without a TPA extension or renewal, it would suggest our trading partners could move slower [on the Doha talks],” he said.

Brian Pomper, a partner at Parven Pomper Schuyler, said he’s skeptical of even temporary fast-track renewal for just the Doha talks and expects fast-track to lapse, perhaps for several years. Until joining the all-Democratic lobbying firm, Pomper was chief international trade counsel for the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee.

“Because of the way the Senate works, it’s not a slam dunk,” he said, and could be subject to a filibuster.

“There are a lot of folks, not just in the Democratic party, who are sort of scratching their head and wondering what is it that we’re really getting out of this,” he said. Pomper said Members will look at ways of making it easier for American companies to compete internationally and that includes looking at taxes and health care costs.

At least one pro-trade lobbyist, Caterpillar Inc.’s Bill Lane, who has worked the issue for years, said allowing TPA to lapse could be part of a bigger problem. “The larger issue is a very real concern that the U.S. may turn inward, and that would be the biggest threat to U.S. growth and worldwide prosperity,” he said.