It has come to this. To sell his trade treaty — specifically the fast-track trade authority that would grease the skids for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), President Obama is mobilizing a coalition anchored by corporate lobbies, the Chamber of Commerce and Republican congressional leadership. He is opposed by the majority of Democratic legislators, the labor movement and a broad array of mainstream environmental, consumer and citizen organizations.
Democrats are stunned by the intensity of the lobbying effort mounted by the administration. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch supporter of the president, noted that Democrats have been “talked to, approached, lobbied and maybe cajoled by more Cabinet members on this issue than any issue since Barack Obama’s been president. That’s just sad. I wish they put the same effort into minimum wage. I wish they put the same effort into Medicare at 55. I wish they put the same effort into some consumer strengthening on Dodd-Frank.”
Last week, the president raised the heat, saying that opponents — almost entirely his allies on other issues — “don’t know what they are talking about.” He called out Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by name, saying that she was “just wrong” in her criticism of the proposed deal. When Warren said in an e-mail to supporters that the president’s claims couldn’t be verified since “people like you can’t see the actual deal,” the president said, “it’s dishonest” to call this a secret deal, since “every single one of the critics . . . could walk over and see the text of the agreement.” Warren and Brown responded by calling the president’s bluff: If the treaty isn’t secret, then make its provisions public so that Americans can see it before the vote on fast track. (In fact, the treaty, still in negotiation, is classified . Legislators can see it, but only with a trade official, and with no aides, no notes, no experts, no copies and no repeating of details that are classified.)
This president has often exhibited less patience with criticism from his base (what his former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, once scorned as the “professional left”) than from the right. I met Obama when he was a candidate for president. On learning that I was editor of the Nation, he said to me, “The perfect is the enemy of good.” Perhaps he expected me to disagree. I don’t. I accept the need, at times, to accept half a loaf if that is all that is possible. But the compromise has to be based on principle; the half step forward has to be pointing in the right direction.
On the TPP, however, President Obama’s critics aren’t making the perfect the enemy of the good. They are raising fundamental questions about the thrust of our trade policies. The compromises won’t help when we’re headed in the wrong direction.
The president accuses his opponents of arguing about the past, not the present. But he is recycling the same tired arguments that have been used to sell trade deals for more than 20 years. He touts the increase in jobs that might come from more exports, without even acknowledging the loss of jobs that results from expanded imports. He says export jobs pay more, which is true, but won’t admit that the jobs lost to imports pay even better.
The United States has had over two decades of experience with these trade deals, and it has racked up an unprecedented $11 trillion in trade deficits this century alone. Since 2000, 63,000 factories have been shuttered and millions of good jobs lost. Under Obama, we’ve run trade deficits of about 3 percent of GDP a year. That’s the equivalent of Americans sending $500 billion abroad each year. It is virtually impossible to run a full-employment economy with rising wages if we’re facing that hole every year. Corporations not only ship good jobs abroad, they use globalization to threaten workers, helping to drive down wages and contributing directly to America’s sinking middle class and extreme inequality.
The president charges his opponents with wanting to lock out the world: “The idea that we can shut down globalization, reduce trade … is wrong-headed. That horse has left the barn.”
But the president’s foes aren’t arguing against globalization or trade; they are arguing that the rules that govern our trade and investment strategies have been rigged by global companies and banks to benefit themselves, not American workers.
TPP has been negotiated with corporate lobbyists and special interests arrayed around the table, even as the public is left in the dark. As Warren and Brown wrote in their letter to the president: “Executives of the country’s biggest corporations and their lobbyists already have had significant opportunities not only to read [the TPP text], but to shape its terms.”
Opponents want a new direction. The president says the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have the strongest consumer, worker and environmental protections of any agreement ever. That seems unlikely, although we can’t tell yet. But true or not, that isn’t the answer.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus — which leads the opposition in the House — has published principles for a sensible trade policy. These include an explicit goal of moving to increased yet balanced trade, and achieving that, among other ways, by cracking down on currency manipulation, which is used by mercantilist nations like China to run up huge trade surpluses with us. Even avid free-trade advocates like Larry Summers now believe that protections against currency manipulation must be built into trade accords.
The CPC also opposes the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions that establish a private corporate court system for foreign investors, giving them the right to sue the United States if any U.S. or state regulation (like Buy America provisions on U.S. government procurement or a crackdown on fracking) somehow infringes on future expected profits. As Warren has shown, in this private court system, corporate lawyers serve both as advocates and judges. There is no appeal. And damages — imposed on taxpayers — can reach billions of dollars.
Now we don’t know all of what is in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement because it’s still classified. But we do know that there will be no protections against currency manipulation. And we know that the private Investor-State Dispute Settlement system is in the treaty, because that chapter has been leaked.
Our failed trade strategy needs a new direction, not simply better terms in the old deals. And we have already seen enough about what isn’t in the TPP and what is in it to know — this isn’t going to take us where we need to go.