Trade promotion authority, a Washington drama
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Don Quixote would just love Capitol Hill these days, relishing in all the conversations and counterclaims about trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation. Seems like there is a windmill to fight on almost every corner in Washington. A casual observer might think Congress is trying to reinvent the wheel, or recapture Corregidor Island from the Japanese, rather than iron out a process for both Congress and the president to better handle international trade agreements.

The reality check is that trade promotion authority was created decades ago by Congress to help the president of the United States better negotiate international trade deals that would be reflective of congressional priorities. TPA gives the executive branch credibility to strike a deal and navigate difficult terrain, while negotiators are trying to seek consensus from various parties. No negotiating party would dare put forward their best offer if they thought the deal could unravel at a later date.


All this headline grabbing about who should vote "yes" or "no" is truly misplaced anger. TPA is about "authority" for the executive branch (plain and simple). It does not, in any way, eliminate Congress from the process; TPA only streamlines Congress's ability to participate in the negotiations by not allowing amendments to the final draft. TPA limits the vetting time to no less than 60 days. Congress will always have the final say on any trade deal and there is full public disclosure before the vote.

There are some in Washington who believe that Congress is ceding its ability to oversee trade agreements. There are some who believe that TPA gives this president (and future presidents) a special power to allow for passage of policies that they don't support, and there are some who reflect back to past trade agreements that they just didn't like. However, the common denominator of all this criticism is a desire to preserve congressional oversight, curb presidential power and prevent policies that will harm the United States. Fortunately, that's exactly what TPA does. TPA ensures that trade starts and ends with Congress, as is established in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall have the Power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations."

On a lighter side, this whole campaign for the renewal of TPA has truly become a sitcom that can potentially be recast as a dramatic play. Many politicians who should be in favor of TPA are against it, and many who should be against TPA are for it.

As in any successful drama, one needs a protagonist, an antagonist, serial complainers and, at the same time, each character must possess a spirit of righteousness and a propensity for theatrics. The TPA script has it all. Let's take a look at the latest Broadway show as it's playing out in front of a live audience in our nation’s capital.

Scene One, Act One (The Protagonist) 
I am I, Barack Obama
The lord of international trade

Background: President Obama is working hard to have Congress pass fast-track Legislation called trade promotion authority. This bill would effectively clear a path for his legacy trade legislation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In this year's State of the Union address, the president admitted to the nation that "past trade deals haven't lived up to the hype" and he also commented that "95 percent of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities."

Scene One, Act Two (The Antagonist)
"All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts ..."
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It

While the president is marching forward, several members of his own Democratic Party are lining up against him. Most Republicans are actually in favor of his TPA initiative.

Liberal Democrats want to be sure that the rights of workers are preserved, and that big business doesn't get a competitive advantage under the TPA process. Labor unions have taken to the streets for active protests, claiming that jobs will be lost and the process undermines democracy.

While most Republicans tend to be in favor of the legislation, some conservatives are opposed, claiming that this TPA gives the president too much power, which he might use incorrectly (as they believe he did with immigration). However, reality dictates that TPA actually restricts the president's power, rather than enhancing it!

There are other conservatives like Rep. Walter JonesWalter JonesGeorgia officials open inquiry into Trump efforts to overturn election results Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising Experts warn Georgia's new electronic voting machines vulnerable to potential intrusions, malfunctions MORE (R-N.C.) who remain adamantly opposed to giving the president (presumed) additional authority. Jones said of Obama and TPA: "Given his record, I am astonished that some of my colleagues are so eager to fork over even more of their constitutional authority to the [p]resident for him to abuse."

Scene One, Act Three (The Serial Complainers)
"My doctor says I got a communications disease ... "
— Archie Bunker (fictional character, "All in the Family")

In 2010, it was then-House Majority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report MORE (D-Calif.) who put her full faith behind ObamaCare and said: "But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy." It was this one single line that galvanized the opposition and cast doubt on entire contents of the healthcare package.

Fast forward to 2015, and it is the same Rep. Pelosi (now minority leader) who is somewhat critical of Obama's TPA trade package. Pelosi said: "On trade where we have a strong prerogative, the bill surrenders much of our prerogative. So let's see how we can improve that bill."

On the other side of Capitol Hill sits Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrumpists' assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Manchin flexes muscle in 50-50 Senate MORE (D-Nev.), who was one of the first to encourage Obama to run for president. This is the same Sen. Reid who is trying to block the Republicans from having a quick vote on fast-track trade authority by insisting that they first vote on Highway Funding and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance authority.

Scene Two, Act One (More Drama)
"Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it's done right. Even a pancake."
— Julia Child

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE (D-Mass.) is really sticking to the subject of TPA like Velcro. She says she is not running for higher office, but her barbs directed at the Obama administration continue to thrill the left flank of the Democratic Party. The administration has called her comments "baseless" and has indicated that these challenges have no connection to what they are doing. The president has even called Warren "just wrong" on trade.

Obama has also said that "the idea that we can shut down globalization, reduce trade ... is wrong-headed" and added "That horse has left the barn."

Scene Two, Act Two (Closure)

While the Senate Finance Committee has acted with resolve and fortitude, it's possible that enough Democrats in the House could heed Warren's message, or that Reid could slow down the Senate process, thus causing Obama's own party to obstruct his authority to move on the signature trade bills of his administration.

Warren has invoked the possibility that an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause included in TPP (not TPA) could allow large corporations to circumvent American laws. She also has stated that the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill could be overrun by TPA. Both these assertions are vehemently denied by the administration. In the House of Representatives, it is reported that Brendan Buck, communications director for the Ways and Means Committee, said of Warren: "I don’t know which is worse: If she actually believes this nonsense or that she's just so willing to spread misinformation."

Whatever the case, the windmill battle rages, the forest fire continues, and the firefighters are trying to bring this unpleasant episode to a close.

President Obama, to his credit, is directing the fight. He wants to drive this issue and he wants to win. At the end of the day, this battle is about leadership, about supporting the office of the president and about keeping America vital in the world of international commerce and, at the same time preserving congressional oversight — which TPA clearly does.

"It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead — and find no one there."
— President Franklin Roosevelt

Helfenbein is chairman of the board of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and lectures frequently on the subjects of supply chain and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.