Dave Johnson: Why Would Congress Approve A Trade Deal Before Reading It?

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The Obama administration is negotiating a huge trade deal. The President promises CEOs he will go against his own party to push its passage. To get this done the corporations are pushing Congress to pass something called Fast Track — a process that essentially pre-approves trade agreements before Congress even reads the agreements for the first time.

[Reposted from the Campaign for America's Future blog  |  Dave Johnson  |  December 5, 2014]

President Obama visited the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable Wednesday and told the business leaders he will push Congress to pass the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The path to passage for TPP is Congress approving the Fast Track process ahead of time, and the President is working to get Fast Track approved over Democratic objections.

Fast Track Pre-Approves Unread Trade Agreements

“Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority is essentially pre-approval of trade agreements before they are completed. By agreeing to use Fast Track Congress sets aside its Constitutional duty to carefully review (and fix) trade deals. Instead, they agree to pass a trade agreement within 90 days of seeing it for the first time, not to amend the agreement in any way, and to give it a straight up-or-down vote, in spite of there having been well over 400 filibusters in the last few years.

For some reason trade deals are given this special waiver from careful attention that no other legislation or treaty receives.

Trade agreements like TPP are negotiated in secret. They are negotiated to favor the interests of giant corporations. Labor, consumer, environmental and other “stakeholder” interests are kept out of the negotiating process. These agreements are not revealed to the public until they are completed.

By requiring a vote within 90 days, the Fast Track process allows the giant corporations that will benefit from a trade deal to launch a massive PR campaign promising jobs and economic growth. The PR campaign will be well-funded, and timed to bring tremendous pressure on Congress in the 90-day period after the treaty is first revealed to the public. (Not unlike the big PR campaign run-up to the Iraq War.) But 90 days from the first read of a massive treaty is not enough time for non-corporate interests to fully evaluate the agreement, and let the public know about potential downsides of the treaty. It guarantees that public-interest groups cannot rally sufficient opposition to stop the train wreck.

Massively-funded and well-timed corporate pressure can accomplish a lot. Ninety days is not enough time to carefully examine the repercussions of these agreements and rally public opposition, if there are things in the agreement that will hurt public interests. And because Congress cannot amend the treaty to fix any problems that are discovered they are faced with scrapping the whole thing or leaving it as-is. This adds additional pressure to let the problems slide by.

So, Fast Track is essentially a vote to pre-approve whatever treaty is agreed on by the negotiators. Why would Congress do this before even knowing what is in the trade agreements? (Hint: $$$$$$$$$ and pressure.)

President Says Pro-Worker Groups Are “Fighting The Last War”

Speaking to the CEOS of the Business Roundtable President Obama said those criticizing trade agreements like TPP are “fighting the last war.” Saying essentially that the job-loss horse has already left the barn and isn’t coming back, Obama said we should instead look forward.

I think some of the criticism of what we’ve been doing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is groups fighting the last war as opposed to looking forward.

Later he elaborated,

And there’s a half-truth that is magnified I think in the discussions around trade that global competition has contributed to some of that wage stagnation. It’s an appealing argument. I think when you look at the numbers, it’s actually an incorrect argument that over time, growth, investment, exports all have increased the capacity for working families to improve their economic standing. But I say it’s a half-truth because there’s no doubt that some manufacturing moved offshore in the wake of China entering the WTO and as a consequence of NAFTA.

Now, more of those jobs were lost because of automation and capital investment, but there’s a narrative there that makes for some tough politics. We have to be able to talk directly to the public about why trade is good for America, good for American businesses and good for American workers. And we have to dispel some of the myths.

Part of the argument that I’m making to Democrats is, don’t fight the last war — you already have. If somebody is wanting to outsource, if any of the companies here wanted to locate in China, you’ve already done it. If you wanted to locate in a low-wage country with low labor standards and low environmental standards, there hasn’t been that much preventing you from doing so. And, ironically, if we are able to get Trans-Pacific Partnership done, then we’re actually forcing some countries to boost their labor standards, boost their environmental standards, boost transparency, reduce corruption, increase intellectual property protection. And so all that is good for us.

Those who oppose these trade deals ironically are accepting a status quo that is more damaging to American workers. And I’m going to have to engage directly with our friends in labor and our environmental organizations and try to get from them why it is that they think that — for example, Mike is in a conversation with Vietnam, one of the potential signatories to the TPP. Right now, there are no labor rights in Vietnam. I don’t know how it’s good for labor for us to tank a deal that would require Vietnam to improve its laws around labor organization and safety. I mean, we’re not punishing them somehow by leaving them out of something like this. Let’s bring them in.

On the environmental front, I haven’t looked carefully at the environmental laws in Malaysia recently, but I suspect they’re not as strong as they are here. It’s not a bad thing for us to nudge them in a better direction, particularly since we now know that environmental problems somewhere else in the world are going to ultimately affect us.

So I think that there are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP, and I’m going to have to make that argument.

But I will tell you, though, when you talk to Boehner and McConnell, that some of those same anti-trade impulses are more ascendant in the Republican Party than they might have been 20 years ago as well. And some of you may have encountered those in some of your conversations. And this was why it goes back to the point — we’re not going to get trade done, we’re not going to get infrastructure done, we’re not going to get anything done in this town until we’re able to describe to the average American worker how at some level this is improving their wages, it’s giving them the ability to save for retirement, it’s improving their financial security.

Let’s pick apart what he’s saying here:

  • The horse is out of the barn, and we already gave all those jobs away so there aren’t any more jobs to lose.
  • But he also says that actually the trade agreements didn’t cost jobs.
  • Trade agreements “have increased the capacity for working families to improve their economic standing” – whatever that means.
  • “No doubt that some manufacturing moved offshore in the wake of China entering the WTO and as a consequence of NAFTA.” Actually several million jobs and more than 50,000 factories.
  • “…more of those jobs were lost because of automation and capital investment.” I suggest visiting Shenzen to see if people are employed in manufacturing or not.
  • “We have to be able to talk directly to the public about why trade is good for America, good for American businesses and good for American workers.” Good luck with that. Visit Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania — anywhere that used to do lots of manufacturing to see just how good free trade has been for them.
  • “Don’t fight the last war — you already have. If somebody is wanting to outsource, if any of the companies here wanted to locate in China, you’ve already done it.” The horse is out of the barn, and he isn’t going to try to bring those jobs back.
  • “If you wanted to locate in a low-wage country with low labor standards and low environmental standards, there hasn’t been that much preventing you from doing so.” You can say that again. We used to protect democracy and the prosperity it brings. But that was called “protectionism” and protecting democracy is somehow bad for us. Now we just protect the giant corporate interests. At least he’s honest about it.

Of course, this is the same President who campaigned for office saying that NAFTA had killed jobs, and promised he would immediately begin renegotiating NAFTA when he took office, to bring the jobs back.

And so in conclusion call your member of Congress and your Senators and let them know you are paying attention to this, and that you do not want them to pass Fast Track before even reading the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Tell them to let We the People have time to evaluate any trade agreements that comes out of the rigged and secret negotiating process that is currently underway.

Please visit No Fast Track for more.

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  • commented 2014-12-09 09:21:07 -0500
    The President states essentially that opposing more free trade agreements is accepting an admittedly harmful status quo. This totally ignores that there are individual remedies available BUT UNUSED for the most egregious mercantilist practices (e.g., currency manipulation) and, more importantly, that there are globally effective closed-loop trade regimes that can be enacted to fully restore balanced trade.
  • commented 2014-12-09 08:29:23 -0500
    Its not a “deal” or an “agreement,” its a TREATY. Glad somebody finally used the word, even if only once or twice here.

    There are huge Constitutional problems with turning over to the Executive (and to international negotiations) the regulation of commerce and our trade with foreign nations. That’s what Fast Track does. And even a “better” treaty somehow not undermining food and health and environment standards would still be a loss of sovereignty to the extent these issues are removed from Congress and off-shored to international law through treaties. But of course the House of Representatives is the wrong audience for Constitutional arguments, considering treaties are not even subject to their approval —but most existing and proposed trade treaties would never pass 2/3 of the Senate —so why don’t we consistently call these things what they are —TREATIES?

    We already know the Free Trade treaties and policy have been destroying American jobs and closing our factories. There will never be a treaty that fixes our trade deficits or restores our manufacturing. America needs to go back to the longstanding framework that made our country rich: unilateral assertion of national sovereignty by the Congress controlling foreign access to our market. There is no need to negotiate that with any country. Congress could limit the excessive imports that are wiping out our manufacturing, jobs and wages. That’s how we did it from the time of Alexander Hamilton to Nixon.

    Replacing Free Trade with a Balanced Trade policy would limit our imports to the same value as our exports, diverting our merchandise trade deficits (averaging over $715 billion per year) into that much more demand for US-made goods. That would create over 8 million new US jobs —in contrast to the zero net increase in tradable sector jobs we’ve had. As Paul Craig Roberts wrote in his book “The Failure of Laissez-Faire Capitalism and the Economic Dissolution of the West”:

    “…official US statistics prove that the US has been unable for years to produce any jobs in the tradable category, whether manufacturing or professional services.   In March 2011, Nobel economist Michael Spence came to the same conclusion in a paper for the Council on Foreign Relations….Spence’s analysis of the official US jobs data supports my own. The US economy has only been able to create jobs in non-tradable domestic services such as waitresses and bartenders, ambulatory health care, and retail trade.”