John Murphy and his team at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce racked up a big trade victory this year.
[ by Vicki Needham | September 15, 2015 | The Hill ]
“There’s no fight in trade policy like TPA,” Murphy told The Hill in an interview.
He called the work on its passage an “all consuming” endeavor for the Chamber, marking the bill as the most significant bipartisan legislation of the year.
Yet the fate of TPA was in doubt up until the final vote — the measure had to pass each chamber twice — with a majority of Democrats and plenty of Republicans expressing their opposition to President Obama’s trade agenda as well as to fast-track, which allows trade deals to move through Congress unamended on up-or-down votes.
“But the stars aligned, there was terrific leadership, congressional leaders, people on both sides of the aisle and the White House worked it very hard, as well,” Murphy said.
“When you have everyone in the constitutional line of succession working toward something, you know you have the wind at your back,” he added.
Murphy jokes that the fast-track bill, which narrowly passed Congress in 2002, skated through in June by more than a handful of votes.
“We blew the doors off of it this time,” he laughed.
But there’s a harsh reality to topping that fast-track hurdle — Congress still must agree to pass any trade agreements that reach Capitol Hill.
“It’s difficult because even when you succeed, at the end of the day, you haven’t opened up a single market,” Murphy said of fast-track’s passage.
“So, by contrast, with typical trade negotiations there is the obvious benefit of new market access that motivates the business community and helps makes the case for the agreement itself,” he said. “You don’t have that in TPA.”
Now the longtime Chamber executive is looking for a sky full of stars to align again, as trade negotiators hammer out agreements on several far-reaching historic deals — the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — and send them to Congress.
“I don’t know who called this the year of trade but it certainly feels that way,” Murphy said.
In 1999, Murphy joined the Chamber’s forces to work on trade policy in Latin America — he’d spent some time in Mexico and Chile, becoming fluent in Spanish — where new economic views were percolating amid a flurry of fresh trade negotiations.
“It was a very exciting time in trade policy,” he said.
Even though one of the most comprehensive deals didn’t come to fruition — the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement, which was an extension of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — those early efforts laid the groundwork for a collection of bilateral agreements in the region and eventually blossomed into the more complex present-day trade goals.
“Those agreements [with Latin America] laid a very strong foundation of common approaches,” Murphy said.
In fact, the U.S. deal with Colombia emerged during 2003 FTAA talks in Miami.
Nine years later, Congress approved the agreement with Colombia as well as deals with Panama and South Korea, a reflection of the “long gestation period” for trade initiatives, Murphy said.
By 2008, Murphy had given up his regional portfolio to move up to overseeing all five of the Chamber’s trade policy shops.
Looking back, his success comes as no surprise.
He seems to have a knack for being in places where major positive changes are underway.
He lived in Mexico in the mid-1980s while the country was trying to break free from the grip of hyperinflation. Less than a decade later, Mexico would join NAFTA. The nation is now one of the 12 TPP partners.
Murphy was working at the U.S. Embassy in Chile as Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship came to an end in 1990. And in 1993, when Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Murphy was the first Western economics lecturer at the Czech Republic’s National University of Economics, teaching students who had “suffered under a didactic style that was easy to improve upon,” he said.
Through Murphy’s 16-year tenure at the Chamber — he says the number gives him pause because he never thought he’d stay this long — he has seen and won some of the biggest trade battles in decades while carrying a torch for other business groups to follow.
Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, told The Hill that Murphy is a “standout in the trade community.”
“He is one of the strongest and most effective advocates on behalf of American firms, while also being just a wonderful colleague, always willing to collaborate and work together to promote America’s competitiveness in the global economy,” she said.
So, after taking a take a deep breath following congressional clearance of fast-track, Murphy immediately turned his attention to getting the TPP through Congress, a legislative challenge complicated by the looming 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Hard to say how the calendar will unfold in the weeks ahead but we’re committed to not missing a beat here,” he said. But the TPP is coming into focus in a way that is “very tangible and imminent,” he added.
To that end, Murphy plans to stay the course of his all-out-facts blitz.
He comically likens himself to a magpie that collects “bright shiny facts” that he uses to sell trade to lawmakers Capitol Hill.
“I think facts matter,” he said.
“Sometimes in Washington more jaded observers than I have a belief that it’s all about who is on your side and who is better organized,” he said.
“But at the end of the day I really think this was an issue where being able to marshal the arguments and facts was something that we were able to do and it made a difference.”