Not so fast! Massive giveaway to Exxon and Pharma hits road bump

Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth NAFTA-style trade deal, faces mounting opposition abroad and at home

Published December 11, 2013 5:56PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Key Democrats and leading labor and liberal groups blasted the Obama administration’s handling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a dozen-nation trade deal that advocates warn could expand to be bigger than NAFTA – after the latest round of negotiations ended without a hoped-for agreement. As I’ve reported, progressives have raised alarm about a battery of reported proposed provisions in the TPP, including a tribunal system under which private companies could bring suit against governments for passing policies that hurt their profits.

“The failure in Singapore makes clear that the administration is far from reaching an agreement with other countries,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. “And I also add emphatically that it should be clear that it is far from reaching a deal that Congress can support.” DeLauro was joined by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and by the heads of the Sierra Club, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and three unions.

“When are we going to sign a trade agreement that’s good for America, that opens up markets and puts Americans to work here to ship good American products overseas?” asked Teamsters Union president James Hoffa. “Isn’t that the answer? Shouldn’t that be our goal? Unfortunately that’s not the goal of this administration.”

United States Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman told reporters Tuesday that the four days of talks in Singapore had been “very successful in that the TPP ministers really accomplished an enormous amount across the various texts of the TPP agreement by working together in a collaborative way to identify potential landing zones on the great majority of the outstanding issues.”

Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public and Media Affairs Nkenge Harmon told me last year that “[n]othing in our TPP investment proposal could impair our government’s ability to pursue legitimate, non-discriminatory public interest regulation.” Global Trade Watch’s Todd Tucker called that “a misrepresentation” of the issue, saying that “once public interest laws are passed," proposed language would leave them "susceptible to attack by multinational companies, and taxpayers could be on the hook to pay multinational companies for the privilege of passing that public interest law.”

“There’s nothing in this for the American people,” Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told reporters. DeLauro charged that her early efforts to engage then-USTR Ron Kirk on seafood contamination yielded "no reciprocal effort by the USTR to work together,” and said, “I don’t see any openness on the administration’s part to change their tactics in dealing with this agreement.” She also alleged that “on a whole variety of issues, the U.S. has been strong-arming other countries.”

Documents leaked to the Huffington Post suggest that such concerns are shared by some of those currently negotiating across the table from the United States. Reporter Zach Carter quoted a memo from another country charging the U.S. had “shown no flexibility on its proposal” for investor dispute tribunals; Carter reported that with such language, “companies could challenge an even broader array of rules” than under NAFTA, the deal he noted companies like Exxon Mobil and Dow have used to fight Canadian rules on issues from drilling to drug patents. The same memo said the U.S. “shows zero flexibility” on its push for restrictions on bank regulation, and had reintroduced a widely opposed proposal to restrict governments’ negotiations to push down drug prices. A USTR spokesperson told Carter that "some elements" in those documents were "outdated, others totally inaccurate," but did not specify which.

Congresswoman Slaughter and allies highlighted an expected administration request for “fast track” authority, which would make any proposed TPP deal easier to pass and harder to amend, as a key coming front in their fight. “Fast track,” she charged, “is an undemocratic seizure of power that usurps our ability to represent the American people.” DeLauro touted letters signed by a combined 185 members of Congress as a sign that “if the current fast track procedures are not changed, then there will be opposition,” and pledged to keep organizing further resistance. “The politicians keep telling us the same song and dance,” said United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, “that never comes out to the truth.”

Others have also voiced concern. In a statement e-mailed Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, warned that “The lack of meaningful consultation on trade negotiations, and the perception of secrecy around the TPP, will only make the president’s request for Fast Track that much more challenging for Congress to consider.” Brown, the author of the book "Myths of Free Trade," told Salon in September that he believed Obama and Froman understand that “trade policy’s not worked for us as a nation”; he said that “doesn’t mean they’re as aggressive and forward-looking as I would like to be, but we’re always making the battle.”

While Obama has already signed off on trade deals developed under President Bush and opposed by organized labor, the key work on the TPP has taken place since Obama was elected in 2008 – on a Democratic Party platform that pledged, “We will not negotiate bilateral trade agreements that stop the government from protecting the environment food safety, or the health of its citizens; give greater rights to foreign investors than to U.S. investors; require the privatization of our vital public services; or prevent developing country governments from adopting humanitarian licensing policies to improve access to life-saving medications.”

Asked in September whether Obama’s pursuit of TPP provisions opposed by labor suggested a weakness in union strategy, Gerard told me it was “too early to try and blame the labor movement,” as “the fact of the matter is that we’re going to fight that.” Gerard said the AFL-CIO had “a good relationship with the administration. Do we always get things the way we want them? No, but we always get a chance to have our voice heard, which is different from what we get under Republicans.”

By Josh Eidelson

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