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Why Mitch McConnell Should Move Ahead on the Pacific Trade Deal

September 12, 2016

Congress Returns To Session After Summer RecessCongress Returns To Session After Summer Recess
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) walks back to his office with Senate Republican Secretary Laura Dove at the U.S. Capitol September 6, 2016 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla — Getty Images

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell announced recently that Congress would not take up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement this year. Considering all the benefits the 12-nation trade deal would offer, this would be a mistake. Here are four reasons why McConnell should reconsider:

Safeguarding America’s stake in Asia

China is expanding its influence in the Asia-Pacific region through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, pouring funds into not only a number of TPP signatories, but also countries that have expressed an interest in joining the agreement. In this environment, maintaining U.S. military presence in Asia is not enough. The TPP is the best tool available for the U.S. to offset China’s initiatives without starting a shooting war.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has called the TPP “probably one of the most important parts of America’s rebalance” to Asia, and that “in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.” Other respected national security voices also agree on the TPP’s importance to America’s national security, including former secretaries of state and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The TPP is not just about lowering foreign trade barriers for American exports. (U.S. trade and investment barriers are already low, but tariffs and other trade and investment barriers in a number of the other TPP signatories—such as Vietnam and Malaysia—are considerably higher.) The agreement will also enhance cooperation and deepen economic relationships across the Pacific—a point President Obama emphasized during his meetings with heads of state in Asia this week. It establishes mechanisms for cooperation in new areas, such as enhancing digital trade, promoting international labor rights, building capacity to enforce environmental laws and conservation programs, and regulating commercial competition from state-owned enterprises.

Boosting the U.S. economy

The government’s independent U.S. International Trade Commission found that the TPP would add tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy over the next 15 years from the agreement’s reductions in trade tariffs and quotas for U.S. exports. This calculation does not even take into account the deal’s new rules concerning trade in services, software, and cutting-edge IT products, where the U.S. is most competitive.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics puts the gains even higher, estimating that the “TPP will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP, and annual exports by $357 billion, or 9.1 percent of exports, over baseline projections by 2030, when the agreement is nearly fully implemented.” The fastest rate of future economic growth is in Asia, where the TPP provides new market access for American goods and services. These benefits should not be passed up.

Constructing 21st century trading rules

Existing agreements were negotiated over two decades ago, when e-commerce was not a significant factor in world trade. They are now inadequate. Though new rules are needed, the 160 members of the World Trade Organization are divided on how or even whether to create them.

The TPP can be America’s first major step in updating international trading rules and setting a high standard for future agreements. Other potential trade agreements, such as Asia’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, do not contain the same positive disciplines that the TPP does, such as preventing interference with the flow of data across borders, establishing greater transparency, regulating the conduct of government-owned commercial competitors, or raising labor standards.


Maintaining credibility

No government will readily enter into economic negotiations with the U.S. if Congress does not approve the TPP. Congress knew most of what is in the TPP when it voted last year to give Obama a mandate to sign the agreement, after which Congress would consider and vote on it without amendment. Given that Congress willingly paved the way for concluding the TPP negotiation, it needs to work with the administration urgently to resolve any remaining issues and schedule a vote for just after the U.S. presidential election.

The next administration should harbor no illusions that it will find willing trading partners to negotiate a better deal over the next few years. Instead, America’s international economic and strategic interests will suffer as the country struggles to maintain its international leadership.

Alan Wm. Wolff served as a senior trade negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, is chairman of the National Foreign Trade Council, and is a senior counsel with the Washington DC office of Dentons.