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Keeping a Massive Trade Deal out of the Fast Lane

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One thing members of Congress probably aren't hearing about from their constituents during the August recess is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most significant international trade agreement underway in decades. The nineteenth round of talks began yesterday in Brunei, with negotiations reportedly in the "end game."

Congress itself hasn't heard much about the TPP; the negotiating process has been characterized by extreme secrecy and the Obama administration has denied repeated calls from legislators to make the process more transparent, while pressing to finalize the agreement this year. Dubbed "NAFTA on steroids," the TPP is a free-trade pact currently comprised of twelve participants, including Mexico, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Chile.

Lawmakers do have one critical decision to make regarding the TPP when they return to Washington this fall: whether to grant fast-track authority to President Obama. Fast-tracking (formally called Trade Promotion Authority) would allow Obama to sign the agreement prior to congressional approval, before legislators even read the final text. Congress would have to vote within ninety days to approve the deal retroactively, but debate would be limited and no amendments would be allowed.

Fast-track authorization would limit Congress's ability to address three major concerns with the TPP: the potentially harmful economic impacts of the deal, the very real prospect of the agreement superseding domestic policy in areas ranging from internet privacy to environmental and financial regulations and an unbalanced negotiating process and its likely outcome, both tipped towards corporate rather than public interest.

First, the economy. After promising to reform NAFTA-type models during his campaign, Obama has now made them a central part of his economic strategy. "I'm asking Congress for the authority to negotiate the best trade deals possible for our workers," he declared on July 30 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a tacit reference to his fast-track aims for TPP and another massive deal with the European Union.        
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