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U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and President Barack Obama. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Is Push for Corporate-Friendly Trade Deal Top 2015 Priority for White House?

Critics say TPP represents an anti-democratic set of policies that have more to do with consolidating corporate power across international borders than boosting so-called "free trade"

Jon Queally

It's not yet the new year, but the Obama administration appears to be preparing an all-out effort to push through the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in 2015 despite the widespread concerns among his Democratic base, the unified opposition of hundreds of progressive organizations, and vocal warnings from individual lawmakers.

To its critics—along with a similar deal now being secretly negotiated with European nations known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—the TPP represents an anti-democratic and regressive set of economic and regulatory policies, many of which have little to do with trade and much more with consolidating corporate power across international borders.

Led by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the White House push to gain support for the TTP—which would lower trade barriers and codify reams of corporate-friendly rules between the U.S. and twelve Pacific rim nations—will likely be a top policy priority in the months ahead. Though administration efforts in 2014 to gain executive "trade promotion authority" (aka "fast track") failed in Congress, the White House seems hopeful that a new Republican-controlled Congress will be more willing to give away their right to review or amend the content of the deal before it receives a single up-or-down vote.

In fact, when fast-track authority was floated to Congress earlier this year, more than 500 labor, environmental and social justice organizations sent a joint letter voicing their strict opposition. That was enough to help squash the effort, but in a profile featured on the frontpage of the New York Times on Wednesday, Mr. Froman expressed full confidence that the administration can achieve passage in the year ahead.

"The endgame is a long game," Mr. Froman told the Times in regards to the TPP. "But we’re in that endgame."

The profile of Froman said the "genial charm" of the man most responsible for pushing the White House trade agenda "masks a relentless drive that propelled him from senior posts in the Clinton administration to a career at Citigroup, where he earned millions of dollars before resigning to join the Obama administration."

In a partisan twist, the Times piece describes how Froman himself suggests that the "political stars have aligned" now that Republican control of the new Senate "has elevated pro-trade lawmakers to key positions in leadership and committee control."

Progressives in Congress, however, may not be so easy to convince and some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, have indicated they will do everything in their power to block passage of the TPP.

"The TPP is a treaty that has been written behind closed doors by the corporate world," said Sanders in a statement earlier this week. "Incredibly, while Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry and major media companies have full knowledge as to what is in this treaty, the American people and members of Congress do not. They have been locked out of the process. Further, all Americans, regardless of political ideology, should be opposed to the "fast track" process which would deny Congress the right to amend the treaty and represent their constituents’ interests."

In a joint letter (pdf) sent to Froman's office prior to the Christmas holiday, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) outlined their opposition to TPP based on the likely negative impact it could have on the stability and fairness of financial markets both in the U.S. and abroad. 

"We are concerned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could make it harder for Congress and regulatory agencies to prevent future financial crises," the senators wrote. Based on what is known about leaked portions of the draft agreement, the senators cited specific concerns regarding how the TPP would govern investor vs. state disputes, market access rules and capital controls—all of which contributed to the collapse of the U.S. financial system and global economic crisis in 2008.


To be specific about his opposition, Sanders listed ten key objections to the agreement:

1. TPP will allow corporations to outsource even more jobs overseas.2. U.S. sovereignty will be undermined by giving corporations the right to challenge our laws before international tribunals.
3. Wages, benefits, and collective bargaining will be threatened.
4. Our ability to protect the environment will be undermined.
5. Food Safety Standards will be threatened.
6. Buy America laws could come to an end.
7. Prescription drug prices will increase, access to life saving drugs will decrease, and the profits of drug companies will go up.
8. Wall Street would benefit at the expense of everyone else.
9. The TPP would reward authoritarian regimes like Vietnam that systematically violate human rights.
10. The TPP has no expiration date, making it virtually impossible to repeal.

Though Obama has said these deals will be better than previous so-called "free trade" agreements like NAFTA and recently chastised labor groups and others who oppose the deal as "fighting the last war" while speaking to corporate CEOs at a meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington, DC. Progressives, however, are saying their opposition cannot be so easily brushed aside.

According to Stan Sorscher, a labor organizer and president of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, what Obama has told workers and the American people, in essence, is "Trust me. These deals will be great." But in his op-ed for Common Dreams on Wednesday, Sorscher explores how the secrecy of the negotiations is a key indicator of how toxic the final deals will likely be. He writes:

Let's consider... He is negotiating these deals in secret. He [recently] spoke in a room of 100 top CEOs, defending their interests. The precise language is being written under the guidance of legions of corporate lobbyists, who advise the US Trade Representative. Congress and a few non-business specialists have very limited access, but almost no influence and they are sworn not to reveal what they see.

If a deal is finished, advocates for these failing trade policies want an expedited Congressional approval process, with no time to explain the terms of the deal, no realistic public hearings or political engagement to educate the public and no opportunity to modify the deal. Putting the deal on a "Fast Track" to railroad it through doesn't inspire trust.

Leaks to date show that these new deals follow the NAFTA template in their basic features -- expanded corporate rights; special corporate-friendly tribunals to settle disputes without accountability to any national government; the interests of global investors will take priority over public interests; global businesses will be free to seek the lowest wages and weakest civil society protections around the world.

However, according to the Times, President Obama has ordered his cabinet secretaries to individually lobby members of Congress to support the deal and he has mobilized his entire administration to push it through: "the Interior Department to work on wildlife trafficking; Health and Human Services to work through pharmaceutical issues, especially intellectual property; the Commerce Department to reach out to businesses; Treasury to handle currency; the Labor Department to address worker rights; the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with land, water and air conservation; and the State Department to take on broader diplomacy."

Despite the push, Sanders says he will be working with allies both inside and outside of Congress to resist such pressure.

"Let’s be clear," he argued. "The TPP is much more than a "free trade" agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system. If TPP was such a good deal for America, the administration should have the courage to show the American people exactly what is in this deal, instead of keeping the content of the TPP a secret."

And as Sorcher concludes, "It is ironic that President Obama, speaking to CEOs from the Business Roundtable, tells the rest of America to trust him. It makes much more sense for him to speak to environmentalists, workers, communities and companies trying to manufacture in the US. Show us why these deals will be good for us, when the opposite has been true up to now."

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