Explainer: TPP, TAA, and Other Trade Things to Know

With all of the talk about “fast track” and “TPP” and “TAA” and other fun TLAs (three-letter acronyms), I thought it might be helpful to do an Explainer covering the main terms:

  • TPA
  • TPP
  • TAA
  • ISDS
  • USTR

If you think of one I’ve left out, let me know and I’ll add it. Enjoy!

TPA — Trade Promotion Authority — also known as “fast track” — authority given to the President to negotiate trade agreements without having to bring all the details through Congress until the final vote. The final vote is then taken over the entire agreement, up or down, without Congress having the ability to amend or even filibuster. Was in effect from 1975 to 1994, and from 2002 to 2007. Some believe that fast track is the only way, in today’s political climate, to get trade bills negotiated and passed. Others don’t like giving the President this ability (usually members of the opposite party).

TPP — Trans-Pacific Partnership — a so-called “trade bill” that is wide-ranging and wide-reaching, with sections on agriculture, investments, intellectual property, services, and laws and regulations. Includes the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines have expressed interest in joining the negotiations. Often noted as covering “40% of the world’s economic activity.” Notable for their absence are the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which some feel explains the real point of the TPP: an economic alliance to push back against the growing power of China.

The text of the TPP is a closely-guarded secret, with members of Congress only able to view it by going to a secure room and giving up their cell phones and anything to write with. Only then are they allowed to read it, but they are not allowed to make notes. Wikileaks, however, has leaked some portions of the text, and the leaked sections have caused growing alarm among environmentalists, labor groups, health professionals, progressive and liberals, and activists of all kinds.

The presumed problems with the TPP (presumed because we only have the few leaked portions to go on) are beyond the scope of this Explainer. If you search Google for “problems with TPP” you can find a number of good articles.

TAA — Trade Adjustment Assistance — program of the Federal government to reduce the damage caused by imports and trade deals. Actually consists of multiple programs to address different sorts of assistance, but usually associated with training and assistance for workers who lose their jobs due to imports or trade agreements. The recent drama around TAA was due to (a) Republicans not wanting it, since they consider it just another waste of money, and (b) President Obama saying that he wouldn’t sign the fast track legislation without a matching bill putting TAA in place. Republicans, who want the TPP, decided to pay for this latest TAA by cutting Medicare, and Democrats, who normally support TAA, voted it down. Whether or not TAA and TPA wind up linked, or not, and whether or not there is a way to do TAA that is acceptable to enough on both sides, are the next questions to be addressed in the TPP drama.

ISDS — Investor-State Dispute Settlement — a part of international law that “grants an investor the right to use dispute settlement proceedings against a foreign government.” If the government does something that causes that investor to lose money, the investor can sue. There is much debate about the threat this poses to national sovereignty and local laws, such as environmental or labor laws. There is also concern about the secret nature of the tribunals, and the ability of corporate profits to take precedence over laws passed by elected officials.

USTR — US Trade Representative — the office responsible for negotiating trade agreements for the United States. The current USTR is Michael Froman.