San Diego U-T: No vote on trade pact needed to protect U.S. interests

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San Diego congressionial representatives Susan Davis and Scott Peters remain undecided about pending international trade measures that will have tremendous impacts on San Diego. An upcoming vote on Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority will set the stage for years of consideration of major trade agreements, including with Europe and the Pacific Rim.

[Reposted from the San Diego Union Tribune  |  Brenna Norton & Deborah Burger  |  June 3, 2015]

Fast Track could spell more trouble from trade agreements run amok; rejecting Fast Track could restore some needed balance to America’s trade policy.

Fast Track cedes congressional authority over trade agreements, giving the White House near total control over international trade pacts. Fast Track lets the president pick trade deal partner countries, set terms of the deals, sign agreements and submit deals to Congress on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

While the president should have some leeway to negotiate complex trade deals, Congress also has a role to oversee and set the terms of international commercial agreements. The Founding Fathers enshrined this authority in the Constitution. If representatives support Fast Track, they effectively surrender their responsibility to shape ongoing trade negotiations and to ensure that any deal meets the needs of San Diego citizens.

Surely Congress should have some say in which nations are part of trade pacts. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) includes Malaysia, listed by the State Department as among the worst nations in preventing human trafficking; the Sultanate of Brunei, which adopted sharia law that targets gays and lesbians; and Vietnam, which the U.S. Department of Labor identifies as a country that produces garments with forced and child labor. Shouldn’t Congress be able to weigh in on whether to reward these nations with trade deals?

While today’s agreements cover the traditional trade issues of tariffs (or import taxes), that is a small fraction of what is at stake. Most negotiations are over so-called “non-tariff barriers,” meaning a host of environmental, consumer protection and public health safeguards that govern everyday life. If Congress approves Fast Track, it cannot prevent these hard-fought protections from being imperiled by trade deals.

Even a few examples are worrisome. The leaked TPP intellectual property provisions extend pharmaceutical patent and data protections, which would likely raise the costs of essential medicines, lengthen the time it takes for generic drugs to get on the market and make some life-saving treatments inaccessible for vulnerable populations. Dr. Deane Marchbein, board president of Doctors Without Borders USA, wrote, “the TPP, in its current form, will lock in high, unsustainable drug prices, block or delay the availability of affordable generic medicines, and price millions of people out of much-needed medical care.”

The leaked TPP investment provisions allow foreign companies to challenge federal, state or local regulations that frustrate their business plans. This gives overseas firms special rights to demand financial compensation for anticipated earnings if new consumer and environmental protections result in “indirectly expropriating” their profits.

The United States has not yet lost any of these cases, but they have been lodged against California protections under similar provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for a phaseout of the gasoline additive MTBE and for placing environmental regulations on the excavation of a gold mine in a culturally and environmentally sensitive area.

The TPP would allow thousands more firms to bring these trade lawsuits. Eventually, some TPP investor will probably prevail, either forcing the United States to pay a hefty fine to some foreign firm or ask California to change its offending law. These provisions shouldn’t be in a trade deal, but if Congress supports Fast Track, it cannot remove or modify such provisions.

Trade deals have also wreaked havoc on working families. The last two decades of corporate-driven free trade agreements have contributed to long-term wage stagnation and the growing wealth and income disparity in America. San Diego already lost about 28,000 jobs from NAFTA and the trade deal with China alone, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The TPP would exacerbate this job loss and income inequality.

Reps. Davis and Peters can help guide America’s trade policy by rejecting Fast Track. Congress must protect its constitutional role to steer the content of international commercial agreements that have tremendous impacts on San Diegans’ daily lives. The TPP could unravel many meaningful consumer, public health and environmental safeguards. True congressional oversight is critical. Reps. Davis and Peters should join the vast majority of the Democratic caucus and vote “no” on Fast Track.

Norton is the Southern California organizer for Food & Water Watch. Burger is a registered nurse and member of the California Nurses Association.

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