Trans-Pacific Partnership Opponents Score Major Victory

This week, 174 House members declared their opposition to fast-tracking the free-trade agreement.

Cole Stangler November 15, 2013

While the TPP has become a lightning rod for labor and other progressive organizations in the United States, the TTIP has slipped mostly under the radar stateside. (Cool Revolution/ Flickr)

Oppo­nents of the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP), a trade deal that’s been dubbed NAF­TA on steroids,” made major progress in the House this week, as law­mak­ers from both sides of the aisle sig­naled their unwill­ing­ness to grant the pres­i­dent author­i­ty to fast-track” the TPP to a Con­gres­sion­al vote. With­out fast-track, it’s unlike­ly that the trade agree­ment could pass Con­gress in its cur­rent form. 

'If they’re going to negotiate it [with little congressional input], then we should have that ability to have the proper review,' says Rep. Mark Pocan.

Until now, nego­ti­a­tions on the TPP, a free-trade agree­ment between 12 Pacif­ic Rim economies includ­ing the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, Aus­tralia, Japan, Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, have oper­at­ed under the expec­ta­tion that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion would be able to secure fast-track author­i­ty — a leg­isla­tive pro­ce­dure that would lim­it law­mak­ers to a sim­ple up-or-down vote on the com­plet­ed deal, short­en­ing floor debate and pro­hibit­ing amend­ments. The admin­is­tra­tion, which strong­ly sup­ports the TPP, has already asked Con­gress to vote for fast-track.

But on Tues­day, 23 House Repub­li­cans, led by Wal­ter Jones (R‑N.C.), issued a let­ter express­ing their oppo­si­tion to fast-track author­i­ty, cit­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al con­cerns about Con­gress del­e­gat­ing away its abil­i­ty to reg­u­late trade. The fol­low­ing day, 151 Democ­rats, led by Rosa DeLau­ro (D‑Conn.) and George Miller (D‑Calif.), issued a sep­a­rate let­ter express­ing sim­i­lar con­cerns. Tak­en togeth­er, this marks the strongest show of con­gres­sion­al oppo­si­tion to the pro­ce­dure yet. 

Even more sig­nif­i­cant than the num­ber leg­is­la­tors who have stat­ed their oppo­si­tion to fast-track is the diver­si­ty of the group, which is pret­ty stun­ning,” says Lori Wal­lach, direc­tor of Pub­lic Citizen’s Glob­al Trade Watch, which has helped lead efforts to raise aware­ness of the TPP and build opposition.

In addi­tion to the free-trade skep­tics on the Left, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic let­ter was signed by a num­ber of par­ty heavy­weights — includ­ing DCCC Chair Steve Israel, Assis­tant Minor­i­ty Leader Jim Clyburn, and 18 of the 21 rank­ing House com­mit­tee mem­bers — as well as some unlike­ly sus­pects: About half of the neolib­er­al New Democ­rats, a group that typ­i­cal­ly sup­ports free-trade agree­ments, signed the let­ter. That adds up to three-quar­ters of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus in the House, send­ing a clear mes­sage to Minor­i­ty Leader Nan­cy Pelosi that the par­ty is at odds with the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion on this issue. Mean­while, on the Repub­li­can side, both mod­er­ates and Tea Par­ty sym­pa­thiz­ers have come out in oppo­si­tion to fast-track. 

The diver­si­ty of oppo­si­tion is in many ways a tes­ta­ment to the mas­sive scope of the TPP, which car­ries impli­ca­tions for issues rang­ing from food safe­ty to copy­right pro­tec­tions. First-term con­gress­man Mark Pocan (D‑Wis.), who’s tak­en a lead­ing role in ral­ly­ing fel­low fresh­man Democ­rats against the deal, says that many left-lean­ing Democ­rats are con­cerned about the plan’s impact on jobs and on envi­ron­men­tal and safe­ty reg­u­la­tions. Much like NAF­TA and oth­er free-trade agree­ments over the last cou­ple of decades, some econ­o­mists pre­dict that the TPP will result in domes­tic job loss­es. We’ve lost a lot of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in Wis­con­sin, large­ly due to bad trade deals in the past,” says Pocan. This has been the wrong direc­tion for our econ­o­my, the wrong direc­tion for good-pay­ing mid­dle class jobs, and so it became a pri­or­i­ty for me com­ing to Con­gress.” Along with 35 oth­er first-term House Democ­rats, Pocan released a sep­a­rate let­ter oppos­ing fast-track back in June.

Oth­er leg­is­la­tors have tak­en issue with pro­vi­sions that would encour­age com­pa­nies to take states to court in spe­cial third-par­ty tri­bunals over invest­ment dis­putes. The prospect of for­eign-staffed tri­bunals over­rid­ing domes­tic law has cap­tured the atten­tion of Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans alike. Rep. Jones has called those pro­vi­sions a total sell­out of Amer­i­can sov­er­eign­ty.” Anoth­er con­cern relates to the TPP’s chap­ter on intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights — a recent ver­sion of the chap­ter, pub­lished by Wik­ileaks on Wednes­day, con­tained strin­gent copy­right pro­tec­tions rem­i­nis­cent of the doomed Stop Online Pira­cy Act (SOPA).

Many of the con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the record against fast-track are dis­turbed by the plan’s gen­er­al lack of trans­paren­cy. The Unit­ed States Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive (USTR) has con­duct­ed its TPP nego­ti­a­tions — all 19 rounds — in secre, and with the excep­tion of some indi­vid­ual chap­ters leaked to the press, the con­tent of the TPP is known only to the nego­tia­tors and to hun­dreds of trade advi­sors, who are barred from dis­clos­ing infor­ma­tion. Even mem­bers of Con­gress have to jump through hoops just to gain access to por­tions of the text, unless they’re on the rel­e­vant committees.

Leg­is­la­tors say the cum­ber­some review process, com­bined with fast-track author­i­ty, ulti­mate­ly infringes on their role as law­mak­ers. Yes, you can sit down and look at some of the lan­guage with­out your staff and go through and find out what’s in the deal,” says Rep. Pocan. But impor­tant­ly, if they’re going to nego­ti­ate it [with lit­tle con­gres­sion­al input], then we should have that abil­i­ty to have the prop­er review. And fast-track takes out that prop­er review. So if we don’t get it on the front end and don’t get it on the [back] end, it can poten­tial­ly be a problem.”

Oppo­nents of the TPP have long insist­ed that stop­ping Con­gress from grant­i­ng fast-track author­i­ty would be the most effec­tive way of derail­ing — or, at the very least, weak­en­ing — the agree­ment. With­out fast-track in Con­gress, it’s like­ly that the TPP would be stripped of its most con­tro­ver­sial pro­vi­sions, and this week’s devel­op­ments could throw a wrench into the ongo­ing TPP nego­ti­a­tions. But as nego­tia­tors head into the next round of talks, the TPP’s oppo­nents are cau­tious not to under­es­ti­mate the resilience of the deal’s pow­er­ful supporters. 

These big inter­na­tion­al trade agree­ments and fast-track are like [Jason] in the Fri­day the 13th movies — they keep com­ing back alive,” Wal­lach says. And that is because there’s this huge cor­po­rate coali­tion push­ing them. I would say that fast-track is def­i­nite­ly down after this announce­ment from all these mem­bers of Con­gress, but I don’t doubt the cor­po­rate coali­tion will con­tin­ue to push it.”

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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