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Thursday, 24 October 2013 15:45

Trade Issues Remain Low-Profile in Congress

Written by  Michael Catalini and Elahe Izadi | National Journal
Rep. Devin Nunes Rep. Devin Nunes Alex Wong/Getty Images

To hear lawmakers tell it, efforts to move trade legislation through the House Ways and Means Committee, while earnest and ongoing, have hit snags in the 113th Congress.

Several big pieces of legislation are slowly winding their way through the committee, including bills dealing with trade-promotion authority and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has not ruled out holding hearings on TPA, which includes a "fast-track" provision allowing the president to submit trade bills to Congress for straight up-or-down votes. But he has not scheduled any hearings dedicated to the issue through the end of the year. Congress last passed TPA in 2002, and that law expired in 2007. The measure also sets up a framework for negotiating trade agreements.

While both Nunes and subcommittee ranking member Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., avoid political sniping, friction is there nonetheless.

"All I can tell you is what I know is that the president in his public statements has indicated an interest in the fast-track and the TPA," Rangel said. "Whatever is going on, Democrats are not involved."

Nunes said the House has a chance to lead on trade-promotion authority because, as he put it, House and Senate Democrats have reached a stalemate.

"That's why I'm trying to take the temperature on TPA," Nunes said. "I'd like to see if we can get that through. If the Democrats don't want to play ball, then I think we should try to do move that on our own."

Part of the reason Nunes hasn't set up more public hearings on trade issues is that they tip off potential trading partners to U.S. negotiating positions. Such talks are best held behind closed doors, the thinking goes.

"Any time you get the cameras in front of congressmen, it can be fun," Nunes said.

Many members also were not in Congress in 2002, and so Nunes faces an educational hurdle as he explains TPA's importance—and this trade authority bothers some members because outwardly it appears to give deference to the White House. Republicans, though, point out that Congress is heavily involved at the outset, authoring negotiating objectives, for example.

"Members are coming up to speed, but it just takes time," Nunes said.

Another key to moving TPA, say Republicans, is increased involvement from the White House. If President Obama engaged more on the issue, that would help speed things along, they argue.

But some off Capitol Hill point to the fact that Obama has been pushing harder on trade issues than during his first term. In a September speech to the Export Council, Obama specifically said trade-promotion authority was needed.

"It's obviously helpful when you have an administration and president who are talking more about how this is more important," said Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There's a steady drumbeat on how important it is."

Stacy Kaper contributed to this article.

This article appears in the October 24, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Global Economic Issues Simmer Behind the Scenes

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