Last week, legislators introduced a bill that is a key part of passing the biggest trade deal of the new century. The measure, known as Trade Promotion Authority, would require Congress to vote treaties up or down without amending them -- and a broad coalition of labor, community and environmental groups is pulling out all the stops to defeat the measure, because they know it virtually assures the passage of a deal with 12 Pacific Rim countries that they fear will look like NAFTA on steroids.
Backed by big business, President Obama wants Trade Promotion Authority to pass. It is, he says, the only way to keep American businesses from being "locked out" of Asian countries that would otherwise be drawn inexorably into China's economic orbit. At the moment, though, most Congressional Democrats are opposed, and it's fallen to a handful -- led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- to coax them along.
What is Wyden's pitch? Well, Trade Promotion Authority has trade-offs, he says. U.S. trade negotiators want to be able to tell other countries that Congress won't mess with a deal once it's inked. And Congress offers a compromise: They give away the right to quibble with specific sections of the treaty, in exchange for a promise that the administration will adhere to a set of priorities Congress lays out.
That's why a lot is riding on those priorities, called negotiating objectives. If you can live with a trade deal that reflects them, you might get behind Trade Promotion Authority as well.
Now many of the negotiating objectives mainly reflect the things that big business wants -- and some of which may already be in the treaty, if texts leaked from the secret negotiations are any indication. Those include eliminating tariffs, curtailing the activity of state-owned enterprises, protecting intellectual property, and allowing for the free flow of capital and data, all of which have been advocated by the manufacturing, pharmaceutical, software and agricultural industries.
But Wyden -- and fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), a liberal's liberal if there ever was one -- are pointing to a few things in the TPA bill that they say should be reasons enough for the rest of the caucus to hold its nose and vote for it.
- Transparency: One of Democrats' top complaints about the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been that -- as is common with trade deals -- it was hashed out in secret. The bill strengthens procedures for congressional access to the text in future negotiations, and directs the U.S. Trade Representative to hire a "Chief Transparency Officer" responsible for making information more widely available.
- Corporate rights: A wide spectrum of constituencies -- from tea party groups to Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- have repeatedly raised the alarm about a provision called "investor state dispute settlement," which would allow corporations to sue foreign governments for treating them differently than they treat domestic corporations. They worry that could open up local U.S. jurisdictions to lawsuits over their own labor, environmental and health protections if a company decides they get in the way of profitability. The Trade Promotion Authority bill says that U.S. laws should be safe from such attacks. "The application of any provision of a trade agreement ... that is inconsistent with U.S. law shall have no effect," reads the bill summary, adding: "reports issued by dispute settlement panels convened under trade agreements ... shall have no binding effect under U.S. law."
- Labor and environmental protections: Trade unions and environmental groups say that free trade has allowed U.S. companies to do business more cheaply in places where labor and environmental protections are weak, enabling a "race to the bottom." The Trade Promotion Authority bill directs U.S. negotiators to make sure that parties to trade deals with the United States adopt and implement internationally recognized labor standards -- such as prohibitions on child labor and human trafficking, and protections for union organizing -- and comply with a suite of environmental treaties. The U.S. Trade Representative has said all along it would do this, as it has in a few recent trade agreements.
- Enforcement: The bill tries to make sure that trade violations are swiftly dealt with by requiring the White House to submit an enforcement plan, including requests for more border personnel and other staff needed to keep up with increased flow of goods. It also decrees that parties to the agreement shouldn't be able to make the excuse that they can't enforce labor and environmental protections just because they don't have the resources, and directs the U.S. to help them build their capacity for enforcement. Similar labor provisions in other recent agreements, while not enforced perfectly, have led to increased inspections in Latin American countries that have signed free trade agreements with the U.S.
- Currency: The bill asks that future trade deals prevent parties from manipulating their currency to gain a competitive advantage for their exports. That's significant, because while labor groups and domestic manufacturers (both the Big Three auto companies and the United Auto Workers, for example) have pushed hard for the TPP to address currency, the Obama administration has refused, arguing that countries like Japan would never accept a deal that did so -- and that a currency provision might also constrain the U.S.' own monetary policy tools, like the quantitative easing process it used to try to propel the country through a recession. Still, using a trade agreement to address currency has been popular on both sides of the aisle, and might ultimately be a dealbreaker when TPP finally comes to Congress for approval.
Of course, those objectives don't guarantee that the deal will ultimately come out the way Congress wants. The White House has to get 12 other countries on board, after all. But it does send a message that if the agreement doesn't pass muster according to those criteria, Congress might reject it entirely, potentially requiring more years of negotiation -- if it comes back at all.
So far, Wyden's argument that trying to improve the deal through Trade Promotion Authority is the best way to go hasn't made one whit of difference to the labor and environmental groups that have opposed it all along. But it might win over enough Democrats who want to support free trade in principle, if it can be proven that the downsides can at least be mitigated.