By Fulton Armstrong
The chairmen of key U.S. Congressional committees agreed on legislation allowing President Obama to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, but major political and substantive obstacles to an agreement remain. The leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees announced the move, with the key Democratic senator involved claiming that the Obama Administration had addressed his deep concerns about the secrecy of the talks. If passed, their bill would give the President “fast-track” trade authority – power to negotiate an accord that the Senate would eventually vote on but without the power to amend it, which would significantly increase chances of passage. Obama’s advisors have called TPP the “cornerstone” of his Asia policy, and the President said last week that it would help “make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.” Supporters estimate that TPP would stimulate growth by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers affecting $2 trillion of goods and services (about one-third of global trade) each year among its 12 members.*
Opposition in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere remains intense, however. The Senate Democratic whip, charged with tallying support and opposition, stated that only one-quarter of Senate Democrats support the measure – and those opponents have made clear their concerns about the implications for U.S. workers and consumers. Although tariffs are on the table, most observers say the focus of the negotiations is on “harmonizing” regulations, which big multinational corporations – which have access to the talks that citizens’ groups lack – systematically seek to eliminate. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are pushing hard for extending patents and trademarks so that cheaper generic medications cannot be sold. Critics say revisions to copyright and trademark provisions would also have implications for public information and the internet. Industry is seeking to roll back environmental protections in place since the early 1970s. The negotiations have been secret, but a leaked chapter of the draft agreement revealed that companies were gaining the right to sue governments if any regulatory action ever caused their profits to fall short of target – a massive burden on budgets.
The lack of transparency, which the leading Senate Democrat claims has been addressed, may have stoked opponents’ concerns. But the differences between U.S. backers and opponents appear significant and unlikely to fade without some serious political horse-trading, which the Obama Administration has been unwilling to do. In his statement last week, Obama admitted that “it’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise” – particularly regarding job creation – but neither he nor the Congressional chairmen have provided hard data showing that dismantling a host of regulations to accommodate corporate agendas will help consumers and un- or under-employed U.S. workers. If history is any guide, the Latin American signatories – Mexico, Chile and Peru – may see a favorable impact regarding employment in certain sectors, and others may see it as the only game in trade right now and thus worth trying to join, but Washington’s vision of TPP as primarily an Asia policy – to counter Chinese influence – suggests that they too see the advantages of participation accruing across the Pacific rather than to the north.
* Currently envisioned as members are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam: Korea last week expressed interest in joining the talks, but the United States told it to wait. Colombia is interested, and Panama and Costa Rica seek membership in the “Pacific Alliance,” which is related to TPP.
April 20, 2015