The battle over President Obama’s trade deal has officially arrived

The Washington Post
By David Nakamura and Mike DeBonis
11/5/15

The Obama administration released the full text of a 12-nation Pacific Rim free-trade accord on Thursday, launching what is expected to be a long and bruising fight to win final ratification in Congress for one of the president’s top priorities.

A month after trade ministers reached agreement on the deal in Atlanta, the public will get its first look at the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an expansive pact that spans 30 chapters and hundreds of pages.

After the text’s release, Obama administration officials said, the president will notify lawmakers of his intent to sign the trade accord. Obama must then wait 90 days before he can apply his signature and send the agreement to Capitol Hill, under the terms of “fast-track” trade legislation approved by Congress in the spring.

The president and his top aides are preparing a public relations blitz in the coming weeks to sell the specifics of the deal to the public, with Obama highlighting the economic and foreign policy implications during a trip to Asia later this month.

“I know that if you take a look at what’s actually in the TPP, you will see that this is, in fact, a new type of trade deal that puts American workers first,” Obama wrote in a blog post on Medium on Thursday. “When it comes to Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing regions, the rulebook is up for grabs. And if we don’t pass this agreement—if America doesn’t write those rules—then countries like China will. And that would only threaten American jobs and workers and undermine American leadership around the world.”

But the fierce political fight waged in the spring over Obama’s trade agenda is ramping up again on both sides of the aisle. The TPP accord has been thrust into the 2016 campaign for the White House. Leading candidates, including Democratic hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Republican Donald Trump, have publicly opposed the pact.

Many of the main flashpoints in the document have emerged in the past several months with leaks of draft portions of the text, including the creation of an international tribunal to settle disputes from multinational corporations, protections for patent for biologic drugs, limitations on tobacco companies to access the tribunals and the terms governing currency ma­nipu­la­tion, which are not contained in the main agreement.

“The currency forum does nothing to change the status quo,” Ford Motor Co. said in a statement Thursday on the currency ma­nipu­la­tion issue. “It falls outside of TPP, and it fails to include dispute settlement mechanisms to ensure global rules prohibiting currency manipulation are enforced.”

The TPP agreement addresses tariff reductions for agriculture and automobiles, as well as intellectual-property rights for movies and pharmaceutical drugs, the free flow of information on the Internet, wildlife conservation, online commerce and dispute settlement practices for multinational corporations. 

Facing fierce opposition from large swaths of the Democratic Party, Obama has sought to overcome the deep-seated skepticism from labor unions and progressives over past trade deals by pledging that the TPP will establish strong, enforceable protections for workers and the environment.

The labor chapter of the agreement requires member nations to live up to internationally recognized standards, including ability to join unions and collectively bargain, the abolition of child labor and forced labor, and freedom from employment discrimination.

But administration officials said the deal goes even further with three nations that are the most harsh on workers’ rights, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, each of which agreed to separate compliance plans with the United States that are tied to the overall TPP accord.

By the time the TPP goes into effect two years from final ratification, the three countries will be required to change their laws to allow trade unions to form and operate freely, to improve protections for foreign workers and those who may have been illegally trafficked, and to outlaw employment discrimination. The Malaysia agreement also requires that subcontracting not be used to undermine collective bargaining, which has hurt the effectiveness of such labor compacts in the past, but the Vietnam agreement does not.

Labor union leaders remain skeptical. Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, said the labor federation would reserve final judgment on the TPP until after officials have time to review the full text, including the side agreements.

“Our real fear is that there probably are a lot of nice words, with good intentions” that are never enforced, Drake said.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez acknowledged in an interview that the United States has been slow to enforce labor protections in past deals, but he said the negotiators have learned from that experience and created stiffer oversight and sanctions.

“You have to make a wide array of systemic reforms before you cross the starting gate or you don’t get anything,” he said. “They don’t get any benefits until they make these changes.

“We look forward to showing people what we’ve done,” Perez said. “Trade agreements have always enjoyed bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition and the TPP is no different. They always evoke passion on both sides.”

On the environmental section, the Sierra Club blasted the deal, calling it “toxic” and “rife with polluter giveaways that would undermine decades of environmental progress, threaten our climate, and fail to adequately protect wildlife because big polluters helped write the deal. The words ‘climate change’ don’t even appear in the text, a dead giveaway that this isn’t a 21st-century trade deal.”

Obama has called the TPP crucial to his efforts to embed the United States more firmly into the economy of the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region and act as a bulwark against China’s growing influence. The deal between the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam encompasses nations responsible for about 36 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

Administration officials said that if all goes smoothly, the deal could be in the hands of Congress by March, but when lawmakers would schedule a vote remains highly uncertain. Although the fast-track authority lays out a specific timetable — and prevents lawmakers from filibustering or amending the agreement — congressional leaders could choose to delay the process indefinitely, even until after Obama leaves office in January 2017, officials said.

In general, Republican leaders have been supportive of Obama’s trade push. But several, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), raised concerns over provisions related to the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries after trade ministers announced a final agreement last month. New House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) must balance his support of free trade with a conservative faction that is determined not to grant Obama any political victories.

Ryan, who collaborated with Hatch and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on the fast-track legislation, refused in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” to predict when the House would hold a vote.

“We haven’t even seen this trade agreement yet,” he said. “So I don’t know when that would occur.”

The politics surrounding the presidential campaign could present additional uncertainty, with both parties cautious about pursuing a divisive vote ahead of the 2016 general election.

“Let’s get the clock running, and let’s bring this up as early next year as time will allow,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a key backer of the pact. “I’m worried if this does leak into the summer, it’s going to make the politics a lot tougher at that point. Then you have to start thinking about a lame duck, and all bets are off in any lame-duck session.”

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a leading opponent of Obama’s trade push, said Wednesday that her coalition had gained momentum since the spring because the policy concerns remain strong among many Congress members and the politics have shifted because of the presidential campaign.

“The presidential candidates have a real role to play in this effort,” she said, “because they have a bully pulpit, they’re speaking nationally on the issue and they probably get heard, in many instances, with the media more than individual members of Congress.”

(David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan. Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015. Lydia DePillis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.)

 


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