Hillary Clinton weighed in on the trade debate Sunday during a campaign stop in Iowa. Or maybe she didn't. Or she did, but not in the way people thought she did. Confused or frustrated yet? You're not alone. Between TPP, TPA, TAA, TTIP, and any other number of letter t-laden acronyms, it has become difficult to pinpoint what, specifically, lawmakers are actually talking about as this process moves forward. That's a problem.
Trade policy is complicated. Congressional procedure is complicated. Politics are often deliberately made complicated by lawmakers or candidates who see limited benefit in weighing in on thorny or increasingly complex issues. The ongoing fight on Capitol Hill over trade combines them all—a mix of policy, procedure, and 2016 politics. That means it's probably worth breaking down a few top-line points on all three.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the name of the 12-nation trade talks that are currently ongoing. There is no deal, though Obama administration officials say they are closing in on one. President Barack Obama has made reaching a deal on TPP one of the top goals of his second term and a cornerstone of his foreign and domestic policy agenda. It is also a top priority of Republican leadership in the House and Senate. Many Democrats, stung by past major trade agreements, are skeptical of the direction of the negotiations. But it's important to note, again, there is technically no deal ... yet.
Think about negotiating with 11 other countries. They've all got their own politics, their own legislatures, and their own powerful industries. How could you possibly get all 11 to agree on the same principles, let alone a specific trade deal? It's not easy. So it would make sense to create a mechanism to try and streamline the process, right? Meet the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). TPA is not the trade deal (again, that's TPP). It is, more or less, a procedural mechanism designed to ease the passage of any deal. TPA, also known as “fast-track,” doesn't prevent lawmakers from voting on a final deal, but it does prevent amendments. Obama administration officials say explicitly they need TPA to reach a final agreement on TPP. Other nations, as Obama's team explains it, simply don't trust that the U.S. can get a deal through Congress untouched without it. (This is a serious point of disagreement between Obama and Democrats opposed to the trade deal.)
While TPA is not (repeat: is not) the actual trade deal, it does require legislation and a vote. Democrats opposed or who are wavering on trade see that bill as one of the last points of leverage should Obama actually finalize a deal. If TPA passes and Obama's team reaches an agreement on TPP, there's little confidence within the ranks of those opposed to a deal that momentum could be halted at that point. For a unified labor movement, progressive activists, and Democrats opposed to the deal, that has painted TPA as a must-kill item on the agenda.
Last week House Democrats chose to vote to sink their own priority, Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), in order to slow down Obama's (TPA). So what the heck does this have to do with TPA? Well, nothing really. Except that program, used to provide aid to U.S. workers displaced due to trade, is expiring. Democrats, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the program, saw an opening in the TPA legislation and it became the vehicle to extend (and actually expand) the program.
House Democrats opposed to the underlying trade negotiations quietly settled on a strategy to deliberately kill their own priority in order to re-set the broader trade debate. That meant voting against TAA, even in the wake of (and perhaps because of in some cases) personal lobbying from Obama. In an interesting twist, House lawmakers actually had the votes to pass the TPA measure separately, but without TAA attached, that goes nowhere for the moment.
Obama and Republican leaders are now left with trying to find another route to get TPA to the president's desk. One possibility is swinging a huge number of Democrats who just a few days ago voted against TAA. That seems unlikely, save for an epic weekend of lobbying by the White House legislative affairs team. But House and Senate leaders can get quite crafty when it comes to passing bills they badly want to move. So it's safe to say there's more to be written in this story.
The procedure and the policy have presented a political conundrum on the campaign trail for Clinton. She was Obama's secretary of state when negotiations on TPP started and was supportive at the time. But the party continues to hold a general distrust for trade deals. As Clinton presses for a "better agreement" and leaves the door open to eventually supporting a final deal, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley have made attacking the trade deal a central point of their campaigns. Both weighed in to oppose TPA.
Clinton, for her part, has held her fire, instead broadly focusing on the need for a strong final deal on the TPP. There's a reason. Read through the previous sections above. Does that sound like a process a presidential candidate would want to explain on the campaign trail? No. Especially not when the underlying issue is so divisive among the most activated members of the party, as it is for Democrats. Clinton, on Sunday, was talking about the broader trade negotiations, not the specifics of the fast-track legislative process. That, it appears, is something that her team has decided there is simply no benefit to weigh in on. As Robby Mook, Clinton's campaign manager, said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday: “The back and forth that's happening right now is about procedures and parliamentary this and that."
This stuff is complex, and that's even before one gets into the specifics of TPP itself—an enormously important negotiation that touches on just about every sector of the U.S. economy and more than 40 percent of the world's. That, in a nutshell, is exactly why figuring out what each lawmaker or candidate means when they say something on the issue, matters. No matter how many times they use the letter “T” in the acronyms.