Fast-track trade negotiating authority (also known as Trade Promotion Authority), which largely guarantees congressional votes on trade agreements, has been around since the 1970s. Fast track, however, has proven a divisive issue in recent years and the subject of several heated congressional debates. Congress last granted fast track authority in 2002. Although the final three free trade agreements--Colombia, Panama, and Korea--negotiated under it were only actually approved in 2011, the negotiating authority actually expired for new agreements during the Bush Administration.
The Obama Administration has made significant progress on a complex Pacific Basin trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership without fast-track authority. It remains to be seen, however, if the negotiations can be concluded or the agreement approved by Congress without a new grant of fast-track authority. For his part, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also expressed an interest in launching new trade agreements and fast track. Discussions have already quietly begun in Congress and in the business community on possible new legislation. There is a strong possibility that both President Obama and Mitt Romney would choose to seek a new grant of fast-track authority from Congress if elected President in 2012.
WHAT IS FAST TRACK?
In essence, fast-track negotiating authority amounts to a bargain between the President and Congress. The President agrees to negotiate trade agreements in line with negotiating objectives approved by Congress and obtain approval from Congress before entering into specific trade negotiations. In return, Congress agrees to consider legislation implementing trade agreements meeting those objectives within a time certain (no filibuster) and without offering amendments (which would likely force renegotiation). At times, trading partners have refused (or at least threatened to refuse) to conclude negotiations with the United States until fast track was in place.
This bargain is necessitated on modern trade agreements because though Congress is assigned specific responsibility for trade in the Constitution, only the President is able to negotiate with foreign countries. Thus, by their very nature trade agreements require an understanding between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Congress has extended fast-track authority a number of times and some residual fast-track authority to build on existing...