Lobbyists Deceptively Claim the Public Favors Fast-Tracking Trade Agreements

Critics say the much-hyped opinion polls relied on tricky phrasing to create an impression of voter support.

Cole Stangler

Protesters gather in the snow in Elgin, Ill. to stand against removing Congress' ability to change the Trans-Pacific Partnership upon its completion. (Stop FastTrack / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a massive trade agreement being negotiated by the United States, Canada, Japan, Singapore and other Pacific Rim countries — say that pro-trade business lobbyists have rolled out misleading polling data in an attempt to demonstrate public support for the deal that isn’t there.

Neither of the corporate prompts got to the core of what trade promotion authority actually entails—Congress giving up its ability to amend completed trade agreements.

When you design a poll, you can design a poll to plumb what Americans are thinking, or you can design a poll and a set of questions to prove that you’re right and then trumpet that basically,” says George Kohl, senior director at the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which opposes the trade deal in its current form. In the discussion around trade, business wanted to say the American people are with us. So rather than writing questions to determine what people thought, they wrote questions to get [certain] answers.”

Recent polls commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable, two pro-TPP lobbying powerhouses, appear to show widespread public backing for trade promotion authority,” or fast-track.” Favored by the Obama administration but facing major opposition on Capitol Hill, fast-track would limit Congress to a simple up-or-down vote on the version of the TPP that trade negotiators complete. Fast-track is a wonky — some might say nefarious — pet cause of TPP supporters. But no matter how one looks at it, it’s not the kind of issue that receives approval ratings hovering around 80 percent. And fast-track opponents say corporate lobbyists juiced up the questions to produce those figures.

It’s clearly in the interest of multi-national corporations and other supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to create the impression that there’s more support for fast-track than actually exists,” says Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program. 

February poll commissioned by NAM never actually used the terms fast-track” or trade promotion authority.” It observed that the President has Constitutional authority to negotiate international agreements and Congress has Constitutional authority to regulate trade with foreign nations.” It then asked respondents whether they believed that Congress and the President should work together so that America can negotiate and put in place trade agreements that eliminate barriers and level the playing field.” The result: 80 percent said yes.

A separate Business Roundtable poll released in early March characterized fast-track in a similarly roundabout fashion. By passing Trade Promotion Authority legislation, Congress can set goals for trade agreements and require the President to consult with it during their negotiation,” the prompt read. Congress must then approve each final trade agreement.”

It then asked respondents whether or not they supported passage of Trade Promotion Authority to help Congress and the President put in place trade agreements that open foreign markets.” 78 percent said yes.

The polls have been covered by The Hill and Politico, and cited by pro-TPP columnists writing in a range of outlets that includes Real Clear Policy and the conservative Daily Caller.

Both polls were also cited in a March press release from an umbrella pro-TPP lobbying organization—the Trade Benefits America Coalition, which includes the NAM, Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce. That united front of corporate behemoths, which has received support from AT&T, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Walmart and other dominant forces from across the economy, lobbies Congress in support of fast-track.

But critics charge that neither of the corporate prompts got to the core of what trade promotion authority actually entails — Congress giving up its ability to amend completed trade agreements. When the Sierra Club, CWA and U.S. Business and Industry Council framed it that way in a poll they released in January, they obtained drastically different results.

Carried out jointly by liberal-leaning Hart Research Associates and conservative-leaning Chesapeake Beach Consulting, the poll found that people opposed fast-track by a 62-28 margin. In marked contrast to the corporate-designed questions, the prompt explained that fast-track could mean that once the administration’s negotiations are completed, Congress must take an up-or-down vote on the agreement as a whole, and could not make any amendments or changes in the agreement.”

The polling ruse played by industry is evidence of growing desperation on the part of TPP supporters, says the Sierra Club’s Solomon. I think the deceiving poll questions and results are really about trying to breathe some life into the discussion on the trade agreement, when really the trade pact and the fast-track process itself is floundering, if not failing.”

It’s been a challenging year for the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the agency that hammers out trade policy. Negotiators were supposed to be putting the final touches on the TPP by the end of last year. And when President Obama’s April trip to Asia was first conceived, it was supposed to be a kind of TPP victory lap, a celebration of the pending passage of the largest regional trade agreement in history. Instead, negotiations are stalled and fast-track faces an open revolt in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are both on record against the measure — thanks, in no small part, to a groundswell of pressure from below.

Fast-track isn’t dead yet though: TPP supporters in Congress could introduce an alternative, more compromising version of trade promotion authority designed to assuage Democratic unease — or simply wait until after the midterm elections to tackle the issue. 

In These Times reached out to Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers to respond to criticism of their polling.

We believe the results speak for themselves and are not misleading,” says Amanda DeBard, spokesperson for the Business Roundtable.

A spokesperson for NAM did not comment and included a link to the press release from the Trade Benefits America Coalition. 

It should be heartening news for TPP skeptics that a majority of Americans don’t actually support fast-track — they are just being misled. But the fact that polling varies so much depending on how one frames the question highlights what’s arguably the biggest challenge for the agreement’s opponents — most Americans remain woefully unfamiliar with the specifics of trade deals.

Opponents of the deal have long maintained the key to defeating fast-track lies in better educating legislators and the general public alike. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, calls it the Dracula strategy” — one need only to drag the TPP out into the light and let it self-destruct. There’s no way that such a corporate power grab — not to mention the undemocratic legislative procedure that its success hinges on — could survive the test of public scrutiny, the argument goes.

What we find time and time again is as soon as you explain what both fast-track and the TPP mean for safeguards on the environment and jobs and food and water quality, it’s actually been very easy to get the public engaged and to get people really angry and upset,” says Solomon of the Sierra Club.

The latest episode over polling, though, suggests that TPP critics still have a long way to go.

Full disclosure: The CWA is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.
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