Was it a dumb mistake – or was it a fatal mistake? Maybe it was both, some well-clued-in trade types told WTD this week.
The ruckus caused by the “no-show” of US Trade Representative Michael Froman for an important Senate Finance Committee hearing on the long-anticipated Presidential trade negotiating authority bill continues to reverberate a week later, rather than fade out – as is usual for most faux-pas in Washington.
Reaction – almost to the person – was sharp from senators at the hearing last Thursday. Ranking committee Republican Orrin Hatch said that unless the Administration gets involved in the process, the President may not get TPA at all. Former USTR Robert Portman – a Finance member – put it more succinctly – “He should have been there.”
Two other former USTRs this week said they were equally perplexed by the move – or non-move. One told WTD that it goes way beyond political tactics and hits at the heart of US influence in the world economy. Many foreigners outside the United States are watching closely to see what the Obama Administration does on TPA.
They both told WTD that they always jumped at the chance to testify to the oversight committee when it came to explaining trade priorities of their respective Administration – if the issue were important to their boss. Maybe TPA is just not that important.
Told well before the meeting that the USTR would not attend, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus brushed off the criticism, telling WTD that the nonappearance was “no big deal” since everyone knows the Administration strongly supports TPA.
The official answer came from USTR. Mr. Froman thought it more important for Congress to experience first-hand just how “stakeholders” view the issue. Testifying in support that day were the chairman of Honeywell International, a New York state apple grower and an exercise and fitness equipment designer. Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said flatly that the United States cannot afford any more free trade agreements perpetuated by FPA.
How that’s for a roaring endorsement.
But while Finance was holding its hearing, USTR Froman was “working” House members behind closed doors. Nobody is saying just what he was telling members. The ambassador is spending days and nights on Capitol Hill, USTR is telling the press.
As for involvement at a higher-level, USTR Froman refused to tell WTD this week whether President Obama will call for TPA in next week’s State of the Union address. It was not a difficult question since the President already made big news a couple of months ago when he said he wanted the special trade negotiating authority. It is going to be needed to move ahead on the highly touted TransPacific Partnership and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment partnership negotiations.
President Obama, himself, gave a hint in last week’s Saturday radio address that TPA may not warrant more than a mention at best in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. He cited two important things that Congress can do to create jobs in the country – getting immigration under control and building new physical infrastructure. Neither are anything the Obama Administration or Congress is capable of dealing with.
Trade was not a factor in his brief Saturday remarks, but it sparked a comment from one former USTR to rhetorically ask WTD whether the Administration knows basic “economics 101.” Our answer – “It doesn’t seem that way.”
Whether the President knows it or not, how many words and how much emphasis are given to TPA in the State of the Union will likely seal its fate.
Not getting TPA essentially means no US jobs-creating Asia-Pacific trade agreement – and puts into deep question the future of the TTIP.
(P.S. – Does conducting business one-on-one with House Democrats behind closed doors bolster USTR’s insistence that it is the most “transparent” agency in government ever? Maybe I’m just too dumb to understand.
All I know is that the last time a USTR met “privately” and “one-on-one” with House members to support TPA, it resulted in a plethora of Administration promises – including secret deals involving federal money allocated for bridge building (literally) to promises to keep open Agriculture Department facilities in Congressional districts. That is something we in Washington call real “pork.”