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Obama Administration Signals Intent to Pursue Congressional TPP Vote This Year

The White House sent to Congress on 12 August a draft statement of administrative action outlining the statutory changes and administrative actions that would be necessary to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging free trade agreement with 11 other countries that was signed on 4 February 2016. According to press sources, this move appears to be a signal that the Obama administration will continue to push for Congress to vote on implementing legislation after this November’s elections despite the opposition to the pact proclaimed by both presidential candidates and a number of lawmakers.

The administration will be able to submit draft implementing legislation to Congress beginning 30 days after the submission of the draft SAA but is unlikely to do so in the current political climate. House and Senate leaders have made clear that any such bill would be rejected unless changes are made to certain TPP provisions, including those on intellectual property protection for biologic drugs, dispute settlement, and storage of financial data. The White House and lawmakers have reportedly been working to resolve concerns without reopening the agreement, which TPP signatories have generally said is a non-starter, but there has been little public indication of progress. If and when a draft measure is sent to Capitol Hill it would likely undergo “mock mark-ups” intended to highlight areas where members of Congress, who under the trade promotion authority law approved last year cannot amend a final bill implementing a trade agreement, would like to see changes.

Assuming an implementing bill is ultimately submitted, its potential fate remains uncertain. Administration officials have been assiduously courting support for TPP among businesses, fence-sitting lawmakers and others, and one recent poll showed that public support for TPP is increasing the more the agreement is discussed in the on-going political campaigns. That may or may not be enough to provide cover for Congress to approve TPP, which as a symbol of the perceived ills of globalisation and trade liberalisation has come under sustained attack by both major presidential candidates as well as a sizeable number of congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has sharply criticised past U.S. trade deals and his protectionist views could lead to the TPP’s demise if he is elected president. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has also been critical of TPP but appears to have a more accommodative stance on trade.

Several Republican leaders reacted with scepticism to the submission of the draft SSA. For example, a spokeswoman for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah) observed that “submitting the SSA at this time is premature and raises questions about whether this administration is serious about building momentum to secure the broad, bipartisan support necessary for the trade pact to be approved by Congress.” For her part, a spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (Republican-Texas) cautioned that “the White House must address members’ concerns before TPP moves forward in Congress.”

Of potential interest is a recent survey of business economists in the United States where 47 percent of those polled supported the ratification of TPP as currently negotiated. Thirty percent of those asked about TPP said the U.S. government should seek more favourable terms prior to adoption, while six percent believe the United States should reject TPP outright in its current form and 17 percent had no opinion. A separate survey of Clinton supporters conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of those polled viewed the TPP as a positive development for the United States, while 58 percent of Trump voters said the deal would be bad for the country. The survey also found that 59 percent of Clinton supporters view trade agreements favourably, compared to only 26 percent of Trump supporters.

Meanwhile, press reports indicate that at least three ASEAN members – Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand – are actively considering the possibility of joining TPP at some point in the future. Officials from these countries have met with their U.S. counterparts in recent months to discuss the changes that would have to be made to their respective domestic legislations to meet the requirements of TPP. Four of the ten members of ASEAN – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – are already currently part of TPP.

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