WASHINGTON – President Obama is aggressively pushing a proposed trade pact with the Asia-Pacific nations that he insists will bolster America’s middle class workers, but the proposal is drawing a stern rebuke from lawmakers who in the past have been counted among his most loyal supporters – political progressives.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are among those taking dead aim at plans for a Trans Pacific Partnership, a regional investment treaty involving 12 nations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the U.S.
The back-and-forth over the package, whose details remain murky, is getting a little heated as the White House defends its strategy and fends off the opposition of those it usually counts on as allies.
“It’s the highest-standard trade agreement in our history,” Obama said during a speech before the Organizing for Action’s 2015 spring summit in Washington, D.C. “It is the most progressive trade agreement in our history. It’s got strong provisions for workers, strong provisions for the environment. And unlike some past trade agreements, all these provisions are actually enforceable. If you’re a country that wants to be in this agreement, you’ve got to meet these high standards. Once you’re a part of this partnership, if you violate your responsibilities, there are consequences. There are penalties.”
Obama noted that he has “good friends” on the other side of the debate but he asserted their objections are misguided.
“And the fact is, is that if you end up just being opposed to this trade deal, then that means you’re satisfied with the status quo,” Obama said. “But that doesn’t make any sense because the status quo isn’t working for our workers.”
But Warren and others maintain the administration is hiding the details of the pact from the public because it would generate widespread opposition.
“The administration says I’m wrong – that there’s nothing to worry about,” Warren said on her blog. “They say the deal is nearly done and they are making a lot of promises about how the deal will affect workers, the environment, and human rights. Promises – but people like you can’t see the actual deal.”
For more than two years, Warren said, corporations have been provided access to parts of the deal but “the doors stayed locked for the regular people whose jobs are on the line.” Lawmakers have been briefed but they first had to swear not to release details because the White House wants to avoid revealing trade secrets.
It’s also likely the TPP, if or when it comes up for a vote, will be fast-tracked – meaning no amendments or filibusters can be employed.
“Before we sign on to rush through a deal like that – no amendments, no delays, no ability to block a bad bill – the American people should get to see what’s in it,” Warren said.
Negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership began in 2010 with the intent, according to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, of increasing trade among the involved nations by lowering tariffs and other trade barriers, which is taken to mean regulations. The only details to emerge have come through leaked drafts published by Wikileaks.
Those opposed to TPP, and free trade in general, assert the leaked documents establish that the package will benefit only the largest multi-national corporations and harm everyone else. There are questions about Internet freedom and consumer protections. Companies, according to the documents, will be empowered to a nation’s regulations in international court.
Obama argued that the trade agreement would “strengthen our hand overseas, and it gives us the tools to open up other markets to our goods and services to make sure they’re playing by the same rules we are.”
“So instead of having a race to the bottom, for lower wages and worse working conditions and more abuse of our natural resources, this is a race to the top,” Obama said. “It’s not just good for our businesses, it’s good for our workers. And along with it, we’re making sure that American workers can retool through training programs and community colleges, use new skills to transition to new jobs. So the bottom line is this — these new trade partnerships would level the playing field. And when the playing field is level, American workers always win.”
But Sanders said the public has listened to big promises about trade deals in the past – like the North American Free Trade Agreement passed during the administration of former President Bill Clinton – only to discover they come up short.
“The truth of the matter is that we have seen this movie time and time and time again and let me tell you that the end of this movie is not very good,” Sanders said. “It’s a pretty bad ending and I think most Americans understand that our past trade agreements have failed American workers and have led to the loss of millions of decent paying jobs.”
Regardless, Sanders said, the U.S. moved ahead with subsequent trade agreements that also failed to deliver on their promises. Clinton promised NAFTA would produce a million American jobs in the first five years of its impact. Instead, Sanders said the Economic Policy Institute has found that NAFTA actually cost 680,000 jobs as American industries moved offshore.
“All of these folks telling us how great these agreements were going to be and it turned out virtually everything they said was inaccurate – not true,” Sanders said. “Why in God’s name would we go forward with another trade agreement which is, in fact, larger than previous trade agreements?”
Brown, who is leading the opposition to TPP, also is opposed to providing the administration with Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast track, which has passed the Senate Finance Committee. Under fast track, lawmakers would be prohibited from amending trade legislation, providing for only an up-or-down vote.
“We shouldn’t give fast track authority if we can’t guarantee a level playing field for American workers and manufacturers, or if we can’t prevent communist China from joining the pact at a later date,” Brown said. “We must prevent more NAFTA-style deals from giving corporations handouts while workers get sold out.”
In the past, Brown said, fast track authority has resulted in NAFTA-style trade deals that have “shipped jobs overseas, shuttered Ohio manufacturing facilities and given handouts to the biggest multinational corporations.” He warned workers at a forum in Dayton, Ohio, about the potential impact.
“Our trade deals amount to corporate handouts and worker sellouts,” Brown said. “While the talent and tenacity of American workers hasn’t changed, their ability to compete has been hamstrung by NAFTA-style trade deals. But we cannot allow another trade deal negotiated in secret to shortchange our workers and ship jobs overseas. The last thing we need is another NAFTA.”