With the 2016 presidential and congressional elections dominating the headlines, it can be hard to remember that Barack Obama is still the President and that Congress still has work to do. At this point though, there are really only three significant items on President Obama’s to-do list: confirming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, passing a budget (or more than likely a continuing resolution), and passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Unfortunately for President Obama, compared to a few months ago, it now looks like he will only accomplish the CR before leaving office.
It seems that the GOP is sticking to their risky and probably losing strategy of preventing Garland’s nomination. It is also hard to imagine that Obama would agree to confirming his nominee if Clinton wins this November, since she will likely request the ability to appoint her own nominee once she takes office. On the other major initiative, the assumption has been that Congress will wait until after the November elections and then pass TPP in the lame duck session. However, as Donald Trump is strongly against the partnership and Clinton has said she is against it in its current form, the anti-free trade arguments have appealed to enough Americans that the virtually guaranteed passage of TPP a few months ago, now seems much more tenuous.
Americans’ Views on Trade
Over the past year, Americans have turned away from trade as members of both parties have hammered away at the problems with trade agreements. In May of 2015 shortly before both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump announced their candidacies for President, Pew Research conducted a nationwide poll asking Americans “Thinking about free trade agreements: In general, do you think that free trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries have been a good thing or a bad thing for the United States?” Respondents supported free trade 58 to 33 percent. Gallup also reported similar results.
One year later, the public’s movement away from supporting free-trade agreements was surprisingly quick. After the presidential primaries where candidates on both sides of the aisle were banging the drum against trade agreements, a strong plurality of Americans (44 to 29 percent) now oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which had been polling about even in March of 2015. Majorities of respondents to recent polls have also supported more restrictions on trade and said free trade costs the U.S. jobs.
TPP Public Support
While Americans may be opposing free trade in theory, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they oppose the details of the TPP. Unfortunately for those hoping to see TPP get passed, Americans know virtually nothing specific about TPP. A 2015 CBS/New York Times poll found that an astounding 48 percent of Americans said they knew “nothing at all" about TPP and an additional 30 percent knew “not much.” Without knowing any specifics on the treaty, it is very likely that Americans will revert to their general feelings on free trade, which have taken a beating in the last year, leading them to oppose TPP. Indeed, a YouGov poll found 42 percent were unsure if the treaty would be good or bad for the US, while a Gallup poll found 40 percent thought that rejecting TPP would improve the economy either a “great deal” or “somewhat” compared to only 24 percent going with “not at all.”
With very few groups making a strong presence on the pro-trade argument, we can see the effects constant anti-trade arguments have had. While the default position among the American public was not too long ago to support such deals, more recent political discourse has led to greater public opposition.
TPP In Congress
In June of 2015, the House and Senate both passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which was widely viewed as a proxy vote for the trade agreement in general. By passing TPA, Congress can only vote to accept or reject the treaty and cannot filibuster the agreement. Since the Senate could have had at least 62 votes, it seems likely that they would be able to cobble together 50 votes in the lame duck session if they decided to go down that path after the elections. However, this seems only plausible if Clinton wins and Republicans decide to move back to their former position of supporting trade agreements. If Trump were to win, it is hard to imagine that the Republicans in the Senate would be motivated to pass the TPP right before he came into office.
While there is still an argument for TPP getting through the Senate later this year, the House is another matter entirely. The House only passed the bill with a ten vote margin. While there were undoubtedly some members of the House who were given cover to vote no, but would have been willing to vote yes, there is not a wide margin, and little room for error on either side. President Obama could only get 28 Democrats to vote for TPA. At the same time, the Freedom Caucus (the far right members, for the most part) has proven to be far from sure votes on these trade issues. It should come as no surprise then that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan believes the votes to pass TPP are not currently there.
The last big unknown of whether TPP will be able to pass in the lame duck session, is the results of the 2016 election. The winner of the presidency and how the Senate and House election shakeout could determine how many legislators will need to find a new job.
If Donald Trump achieves the unlikely and wins the presidency, it is virtually certain that it won’t pass. Republicans would likely abandon the effort to pass TPP in the face of opposition from their soon-to-be President, and there wouldn’t be nearly enough Democrats to carry it over the finish line.
Hillary Clinton winning in a close battle would leave the most uncertainty. The anti-TPP forces would be able to show that Trump’s opposition to free trade deals has electoral legs. Additionally, in a close presidential race, there would probably be minimal turnover in the House and the Senate.
Now in a Clinton blowout, it would likely show both a repudiation of Trump’s strategy and convince many Republicans who were embracing him that his brand of politics is not good for the future of the party. In that case, they would likely revert back to their standard pro-free trade stance. It would probably also mean that many sitting Republican Representatives and Senators lost. These newly unemployed lawmakers may be more likely to vote to approve the deal based on their actual feelings on the issue versus what is politically expedient.
Supporters of TPP have been assuming for well over a year that they can simply wait until the lame duck session and they will be able to pass it easily. It may be President Obama’s last chance to achieve anything of consequence in his presidency when it comes to this issue. Currently, it hangs on by the slimmest of margins, and most frustratingly for Obama, will mostly be determined by factors beyond his control. For those who support the passing of the TPP, their best bet is a strong win by Secretary Clinton on November 8th, as well as a number of incumbents losing their job who could then vote without fear of repercussion from the voters. Supporters of TPP would also do themselves a favor by countering anti-trade rhetoric with their own sustained campaign to return voters back to their previous view on the topic.
To read a PDF version of this memo, please click here.