The United States is currently negotiating with eleven other nations to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – one of the biggest trade deals in history – which will set the standard for international trade deals for decades to come. America faces a clear choice: will we continue the job-killing policies of recent deals, or will we create a new model for trade that puts working families first?
We in Congress don’t precisely know, because the rules governing negotiations mean we don’t have access to full draft texts and staff cannot be present when we see individual sections. We also cannot provide negotiating objectives for the US Trade Representative. The administration’s request for “fast track” authority is a request for Congress to rubber-stamp a text that more than 500 corporate representatives were able to see and influence.
Progressives believe that it’s possible to negotiate a trade agreement that doesn’t replicate the mistakes of the past – one which instead creates a new model for trade and promotes balanced growth for the global economy. But doing so requires that we rethink the old model of secret negotiations, backroom deals with industry and toothless side agreements on labor, the environment and other issues intrinsic to fair trade but deemed tangential to free trade.
Good trade agreements can only be negotiated in the open – which is why the constitution requires Congressional oversight. Article I, Section 8 of the US constitution grants Congress exclusive authority to determine the terms of US trade policy. But Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – which the White House says it needs to complete negotiations – “fast tracks” consideration of trade deals by denying Congress the chance to amend any agreement. Modern expansive trade agreements, however, go much further than when Congress first authorized TPA to allow tariff reductions, and now incorporate everything from intellectual property to banking franchise rules and beyond. Congress must provide mandatory negotiating objectives delineating what must and must not be included in an agreement, and needs to vote to certify that the agreed-upon objectives have been satisfied before the president can sign and enter into an agreement.
Trade agreements must also strengthen labor and environmental standards around the world, and allow us or our trade partners to maintain without penalty strong climate and environmental protections over any weaker standards negotiated in the deal. For example, an American based firm cited our free trade argument with Peru to avoid paying fines after it didn’t meet cleanup obligations under Peruvian law.
We also need provisions protecting a worker’s right to organize and collectively bargain without interference or intimidation by their employer. Partner nations must adopt and enforce the core labor rights and conventions included in the International Labor Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and the US Congress should have the ability to investigate the enforcement of labor provisions. If trade partners fail to implement and enforce meaningful labor protections, we should maintain the ability to alter trade agreements.
Future agreements must also absolutely prohibit nations from manipulating their currencies: undervalued exchange rates allow partner countries to boost their exports and impede the flow of goods from other trading partners without violating the letter of the agreement even if it violates the spirit of both free and fair trade. The resulting decrease in export potential for American goods leaves millions of jobs in the US at risk. With known currency manipulators like Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan included in the proposed TPP, the US can no longer afford to let this issue go unaddressed in the context of trade negotiations.
We must use trade agreements to aim for balance and end decades of ballooning trade deficits. The trade deficit, which is nearly $912bn today, may well only increase under the TPP as currently negotiated – so we stand to lose millions more good-paying American jobs. We need to include in any future agreements a companion trade regulatory program, which would require that imports be balanced with exports, to lower our nation’s trade deficit and create greater opportunities for all.
In the absence of provisions like these, the US has lost millions of jobs and wages have stagnated here at home and around the world since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 20 years ago. But NAFTA isn’t unique: despite provisions to protect workers’ rights in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for instance, labor violations persist in partner nations. An agreement with South Korea (KORUS) went into effect in 2012; two years later, the drop in average monthly exports of agricultural products displaced 46,600 American workers. All the recent trade agreements have contributed to a ballooning trade deficit, with the drop in exports crippling American manufacturing.
Workers are worried that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and agreements like it, will only make this situation worse. Marcos from Houston is one of them: he’s worked at Houston Refining for five years, has seen the effect of previous trade deals on manufacturing jobs and is rightly concerned with trade deals in the works. He told us: “Our current trade agreements have created a vicious downward spiral for everybody that works for a living.”
As a global leader, the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the future of global trade agreements, so it is imperative that we get the rules right to strengthen global trading systems. The US must stop using trade agreements as investment deals for the world’s wealthiest corporations and instead prioritize higher wages, safer work and environmental standards and a healthier world economy. Trade agreements should improve the bottom lines of all Americans, not just of American corporations – or else we shouldn’t enter into them at all.