Congressional Progressive Caucus Offers A Real Alternative on Trade

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Congressional Progressive Caucus Offers A Real Alternative on Trade

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch just postponed the introduction of fast-track trade authority legislation until April.

Fast track is designed to grease the skids for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that is still being negotiated behind closed doors. Postponing the debate on fast track gives opponents another month to build opposition. It gives Republican leaders and the administration a month to line up every vote so that once introduced, it could be voted on overnight. They're hoping to fast-track fast track.

The month does provide time for a long overdue serious national debate on our global trade and tax policy. The U.S. has racked up an unimaginable $6.75 trillion in trade deficits since 2000. Good jobs have been shipped abroad, tens of thousands of manufacturing companies have packed up and moved, and those that stay use the treat of leaving to undermine wages here at home. The trade deficit - over $500 billion in 2014 - contributes directly to the sluggish recovery that most workers have yet to benefit from. It is estimated that if we simply balanced our trade, it would generate 4.2 million jobs directly and another 2.1 million from the consumer demand those new workers would generate. Our trade deficit with China - over $320 billion in 2014 - is the largest imbalance in the annals of history. And now the trade deficit in high technology products with the Chinese is growing to new records as well. Our trade policies are literally trading away our future.

Yet to date, the debate over TPP and fast track has produced more heat than light. The president and his allies keep puffing the treaty's potential to increase exports without mentioning what it will do for imports. They keep arguing the treaty will have the strongest labor rights provisions ever, while ignoring the fact that Vietnam, designated as the major low-wage producer in the deal, doesn't even allow independent trade unions. They portray past treaties as successful, while claiming this one is different. Opponents tend to rail against various aspects of the still secret deal that has far more to do with rigging the rules for foreign investors than lowering tariffs. But objectors are often scorned as protectionists, Luddites who simply want to shut America off from the rest of the world.

This week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus broke through this mire, releasing its "Principles for Trade: A Model for Global Progress." The principles lay out elements of an alternative trade strategy, one built to benefit workers, not investors, and to serve the public interest, not the special interests of global companies and banks. The CPC seeks more trade, but on terms that will strengthen working families, not sabotage them.

The CPC's first principle is that the U.S. should commit to balanced trade. The CPC would have the U.S. announce the goal of restoring balanced trade, and create the policies needed to achieve this.

The CPC principles then elaborate, upending the thrust of current trade negotiations. Instead of the focus being on protecting foreign investors and cutting elaborate deals for various corporate interests, the CPC argues that trade accords should "put workers first," contain labor protection provisions that can be enforced, by the Congress itself if necessary. All trade accords should require that signatories adopt the domestic labor rights as provided by core International Labor Organization conventions. This would require the U.S. to strengthen its labor laws as well.

Any agreement should prohibit currency manipulation, the central tactic of China and other mercantilist nations to capture markets.

Any agreement should provide a floor under environmental protections, while enabling countries to raise their standards above the floor. This is a stark contrast to current provisions that enable multinationals to collect damages if tighter environmental standards impacts their potential future profits.

Any agreement should enable countries to pass consumer protection measures without challenge. Trade accords would be prohibited from superseding domestic food and safety standards, financial regulations, and other consumer policies.

Any agreement should enable strong Buy America provisions in government contracting, and their equivalent for other countries. Surely taxpayers should have the right to use their taxes to give preference to domestic producers, not to foreign manufacturers.

Any agreement should secure affordable access to essential medicines and health services. The backroom deals driven by Big Pharma to protect and extend their patents make medicines too costly for many. No trade accord should delay access to affordable generic drugs.

Any U.S. trade accord should uphold the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Trade accords should be an instrument that promotes basic human rights, not undermine them.

Most important, the CPC would terminate the creation of a private court system for foreign investors. The current Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions give a foreign investor the right to sue a government in a specially created private court system. A small throng of high-priced lawyers serves as both advocate and arbiter. There is no appeal. Companies have sued for damages from countries strengthening their environmental laws, curbing cigarette packaging, deciding to shut down dangerous nuclear plants. This appalling subsidy to foreign investors - domestic corporations have no such protections - exemplifies the effects of backroom deals that serve corporate interests, against the public interest.

The CPC would also strengthen trade adjustment assistance, so that workers displaced from their jobs and communities devastated by plant closings would gain the assistance they need to get back on their feet.

All of these principles are basic common sense. All are elements of a trade policy that represents the interests of the American people, as opposed to the interests of global corporations and investors. If accepted they would provide a framework for expanded trade in which workers both here and abroad would benefit. If refused, we could continue to trade with various countries, but without locking ourselves into trade deals that steal our jobs, undermine our wages and trample our courts.

Yet the TPP agreement now in negotiation clearly violates each of these principles. It has been negotiated by and for and with the global corporate and bank lobbies, not by and for the American people.

So the CPC insists that trade authority - the so-called fast track bill - protect the Congress' ability to set the standards for negotiation. Their principle would replace fast track with an authority that would give Congress the power to determine WHO the U.S. will negotiate with, and create mandatory objectives on WHAT must be included or not included in any agreement. The trade authority would require a prior congressional vote on whether those conditions have been met BEFORE the president could sign the treaty. It would also require that legislators have access to the ongoing negotiations including various draft texts.

In contrast, the authority that Hatch wants to fast track through Congress has none of these protections. The TPP has been under negotiation for six years. Congress had no say in who is at the table or what is included. If it set conditions now, they would be ignored. The Congress has no right to vote before the president signs.

Instead, under fast track, legislators would have 20 hours to debate a many thousand-page bill, packed with special interest deals. They would have no right to amend. The president will have already signed. Congress would only have an up-or-down vote on whether to approve a treaty that they know little about or embarrass a president by defeating it.

How can a nation rack up nearly $7 trillion in trade deficits? Give our global policies over to the multinational banks and corporations, let them cut the trade deals in secret, and slip them through Congress on a fast track. The CPC shows there is an alternative. Now the question is simply which side your legislator is on.

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