The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Politics

There is a very strange dynamic building in Congress regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is creating an alignment between liberal Democrats and some of the more conservative members of the GOP.  One can safely say that when a former Congresswoman like Michelle Bachmann joins a socialist Democrat like [mc_name name=’Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’D000216′ ], there is something interesting going on here.  Like most “agreement” between the Left and the Right, it is usually for different rationales and reasons.  In the past, I have written about the opposition to Common Core which unites many on the Left and Right, but for different reasons.  The Left opposes its corporate nature and heavy emphasis on testing while the Right opposes its top-down, Washington directed curriculum.  Like some things (not all), there is truth on both sides.  Speaking from the Right, I oppose the corporate nature of the endeavor since it was formulated by an elitist academic with a financial stake in showing that “kids are not as smart as their soccer moms believe.”  Show failure on a test developed by a company that produces textbooks and software and one can see the corporate nature of Common Core.  And although I believe some testing should be involved, the over-reliance on a single test designed to show failure does no service to anyone.  Furthermore, there is ample evidence to show that once Washington got involved in primary and secondary education, the wheels fell off academic achievement.

Regarding the TPP, the opposition is predicated upon a different set of principles.  To the Left, it represents a potential rolling back of environmental, food safety, workplace safety, and financial regulations in the name of free trade.  To the Right (and increasingly to the Left for the reasons cited above), it represents an abrogation of American sovereignty, and the Right also opposes the process.

Most trade agreements are conducted in secret so that special interest groups do not interfere in the process while negotiations are proceeding.  Supposedly, the US Trade Representative has been briefing members of Congress during negotiations so charges that Congress is being cut out of the process altogether is baseless.  Like all things, the devil is in the details and right now, we have very few details except some that were leaked to the public by WikiLeaks.  Admittedly, if true (and the leaked documents were working papers, not the final product), then there should be concern on both the Left and the Right.

Let’s just take one example- intellectual property rights.  In the United States, this translates into patents, copyrights and trademarks which is an enumerated power of Congress to regulate.  Under the TPP, because of piracy by actors in other potential members of the TPP, American companies want added safeguards.  This would translate into a body of law- since treaties are considered the law of the land once approved- which would allow the life of patents and copyrights to be extended.  If so, one can see how this could potentially increase the cost to the consumer everywhere of things like prescription medicine to music downloads.  One aspect of the agreement would require societal enforcement of copyright law in signatory countries so that a government would- upon demand- have to move against a single download of copyrighted music.  If steps were not taken, then an owner of a copyright or patent could seek recourse in a court and be privy to “lost profits.”  In short, American law in these areas would be made subservient to the protocols in the agreement.

Which makes the political dynamics all that more interesting.  Conservatives decry the fact that international agreements such as those in the United Nations, for example, that would affect American gun laws should be rejected.  Yet many of these same voices are avid supporters of the TPP’s provisions that do the same with respect to American copyright law, financial regulations (whether you agree with them or not), and a host of other laws.  In short, you cannot decry surrender of American sovereignty in one area, yet support it in another area in the name of free trade.

Still, on balance free trade should be a desired goal of American policy makers.  Most of what the Left decries is basically hollow.  They claim that the agreement would allow the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, weaken American environmental laws, and lower American wages.  However, if there are minimal floors established in the agreement, the United States has nothing to worry about since we would be considerably above those floors already.  With environmental laws, many of the potential signatories are also some of the world’s worst polluters.  But, their environmental laws cannot be strengthened until their standard of living increases and free trade agreements do increase standards of living in foreign countries.  For example, after the US entered into a free trade agreement with Colombia and they reduced their average tariff rate from 11.9% to 4.4%, their unemployment rate dropped from 20% to 10.6%, the number of people living on $1-2 per day decreased 60% and their GDP per capita increased 39%.  Are they on the same level of the United States?  Of course not, but free trade is certainly helping that country increase its standard of living and as it increases, they have the means to then possibly consider things like minimum wage laws, workplace safety rules, and environmental regulations.  These things are impossible in countries swollen with poverty and low standards of living.

The disturbing thing for both sides is so-called fast-tracking of the TPP.  In this process, once a deal is signed, Congress would then vote on it by a simple majority (rather than the two-thirds majority required of other treaties) and they could offer no amendments.  This is troublesome.  The administration argues it is needed to prove to the other countries that we are serious about it.  Personally, too much faith is being placed in the Obama administration in these negotiations.  Further, Congress has since its inception played a central role in US trade policy and agreements.  Although fast-tracking has been used before, it never has occurred in a deal of this magnitude and importance and with so many questions left unanswered.   Besides those concerns of the Left listed earlier, it also has the potential to affect US immigration policy since free trade agreements also involves the free flow of labor across international boundaries.  The TPP’s labor movement provisions are based on the European Union model and we know that model is rife with problems.  That alone should worry those of us on the Right.

While acknowledging that a free trade agreement with Pacific partners is a desired goal, fast tracking as the Obama administration envisions is fraught with danger.  Instead of fast-tracking, perhaps Congress should provide a limited version of the process.  In this version, the final agreement would be made public and after a period of perhaps 60 days, Congress would consider a limited number of amendments to clarify areas in need of clarification.  Perhaps the leadership on both sides would then be limited to 10 amendments (or whatever) of their choosing subject to a limited time of debate followed by a vote and waiver of the cloture rules.  In this way, Obama gets a little of what he wants while allowing Congress some say in the final product.

Handing over the entire process to the Executive branch would be like tacit, unspoken approval of executive over-reach in other areas.  How can we on the Right criticize Obama for his war on coal and amnesty Executive Orders- unilateral executive actions- then approve what amounts to an Executive Branch unilaterally-negotiated trade agreement?  If you suspend Congressional say in trade policy and treaties- enumerated powers of Congress- then you may as well suspend their say on immigration, energy policy, environmental laws, gay marriage and a host of other items.  Free trade- yes!  Obama’s idea of fast track- No!