Now that the Senate has passed a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill that would fast-track passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the action moves to the House where my hope for cooler Democratic heads will surely be dashed. And we will have Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) partially to thank for it. The leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has whipped into a frenzy members of Congress who insist on fighting the last war.
Warren was dead set against TPA, which is basically a broad, congressionally approved outline that sets the parameters for the TPP that President Obama is negotiating with 11 other nations. Her steadfast opposition to TPP on behalf of American workers who believe global trade shipped their jobs overseas is understandable. I just wish Warren were telling the truth.
During an interview with Peter Cook of Bloomberg News on May 19, Warren trod her usual path to slam a trade deal she strongly believes is detrimental to the American people. “We’re being asked to grease the skids for a deal that’s basically done but is being held in secret until after this vote,” Warren said in a double-play diss of TPA and TPP. Here’s the thing: nothing’s secret.
Yes, it is secret from you and me. As Ruth Marcus correctly explained, “This is not secrecy for secrecy’s sake; it’s secrecy for the sake of negotiating advantage. Exposing U.S. bargaining positions or the offers of foreign counterparts to public view before the agreement is completed would undermine the outcome.” But TPP is not secret to Warren. She has read it.
“Have you been able to read the deal,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked Warren during an April interview. “Yes,” Warren replied. She went on to explain that any member of Congress can do so. That is true. The voluminous and changing deal sits in a basement room in the Capitol where members and staff with security clearances can read it. Any member of Congress who wants to be briefed on the emerging agreement or ask questions about what they are reading can call the offices of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). According to the folks at USTR, there have been more than 1,700 in-person briefings on the deal. In fact, Ambassador Michael Froman, who is the USTR, has personally briefed Warren on various aspects of TPP.
Now, about Warren’s assertion that TPA “grease[s] the skids for a deal that is basically done.” She used that phrase six times in the 10-minute Bloomberg interview. And she makes it sound like Congress has no and has had no input whatsoever into TPP. Not true. Warren conveniently neglects to mention that every proposal in the deal is and has been previewed with Congress. Or that members of Congress can offer and have offered proposals of their own to USTR.
Again, the concerns about the effect another trade deal will have on the American worker are real. The opposition roaring out of the House Democrats is understandable. After 21 years, the bitter aftertaste of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains. Shuttered factories and the lost jobs that ensued led many Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to turn inwards to protect their livelihoods. That’s why Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in a statement last month that past trade deals “put the American Dream out of reach for countless working families.” Even the president acknowledges that “past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise.”
But as I read and do my own reporting on TPP, I keep coming back to a reported conversation between Obama and the late Apple maestro Steve Jobs. According to the New York Times, at a 2011 dinner in Silicon Valley, the president asked Jobs why iPhones couldn’t be made in the United States?
Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.
Froman told me the United States has three options with regard to TPP. The first option is the status quo. That’s the state of play we have now where “those jobs aren’t coming back,” as Jobs said. It’s also a state of play where large companies may see greater benefits to moving operations abroad and smaller ones face a hill too steep to export. And let’s not even talk about the existing trade deals between some of our biggest trading partners that put U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage.
The second option is implementing TPP. Froman and the administration have argued consistently that unprecedented labor requirements (minimum wage, the right to collective bargaining) and environmental standards (protections for endangered wildlife and oceans) would “level the playing field” for American workers to compete with their counterparts in what would be the largest free-trade zone in the world. “With open markets there, you give U.S. companies an incentive to keep manufacturing here and ship goods overseas,” Froman said.
The third option, Froman said, was for the U.S. to sit back and let China set the rules in the region with its own trade deals with nations in the region. China would love nothing more than for TPP to fail. According to a story from MarketWatch, China’s State Council is “panicky” over the trade deal. The report points out that the Council believes, “Implementation of the TPP will ‘further impair China’s price advantage in the exports of industrial products and affect Chinese companies’ expansion’ abroad….”
“They are working to carve up the market,” Froman told me. “Would you rather a world where the Chinese set the rules of the road or we set the rules of the road?” The latter option is unacceptable. With its polluted air and controlled economy that has a seemingly endless supply of controlled workers, Beijing couldn’t care less about labor, the environment or any of the other values forming the foundation of TPP. In addition, the geopolitical benefit of the deal is a stronger U.S. presence in the region as a counterweight to China.
No trade deal is perfect. The U.S. won’t get everything it wants in the negotiations, but it’s getting pretty darned close. And the people’s representatives in Congress have and have always had the ability to see and shape the forthcoming agreement. Once completed, its terms will be seen by all and debated at the Capitol. That’s as it should be. But this nation cannot pretend the world and the global economy haven’t changed since 1994. And Democrats cannot pretend that a progressive president who has championed the cause of the middle class and who they have supported for the last six years would negotiate “a bad deal” that further put American workers at risk.
The House needs to pass TPA so that TPP can be completed and move towards final passage. It’s not “greasing the skids.” In the 21st century global economy, it’s a necessity.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj