Obama administration struggles to convince Democrats that its Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal isn’t terrible

Congressional support for the TPP is currently almost exclusively from Republicans

Published February 20, 2014 4:31PM (EST)

                      (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Because House Republicans have made no secret of their desire to do just about nothing of consequence between now and November, President Obama's options for passing significant legislation during the remainder of his tenure are rather limited. And with Democratic opposition to the White House-supported Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal not only growing but hardening, it's beginning to look like the one big initiative Obama could have reasonably hoped to complete is set to become yet another victim of congressional resistance.

According to a report in the Huffington Post, the administration's point-man on trade policy, Michael Froman, recently sat down with a collection of representatives of the Democratic base — liberals, environmentalists, union folks, etc. — in an attempt to convince them that the TPP deal, which has been strongly criticized by leaders throughout the Democratic base, isn't nearly as terrible as they may think.

HuffPo reports that Froman encountered a group of Democrats who were "unusually unified — against the administration" and were far from persuaded by Froman's assurances that Obama, who once said he'd renegotiate NAFTA (he hasn't), was making sure the TPP would protect environmental, consumer and labor interests.

The meeting was off-the-record, but one participant told HuffPo that it was "incredibly telling that Froman faced a room of his core supporters ... and all that was in the room was frustration about the direction of the trade policy." This source added: "The only support comes from the Chamber of Commerce, multinational corporations, big business. The base of the Democratic Party is in complete opposition."

One big stumbling block is the fact that the deal, like all trade negotiation texts, is treated as classified information, meaning that lawmakers, lobbyists and other members of the Democratic coalition have been unable to take a look at the deal for themselves. And the sections of the agreement that have leaked thus far have not only failed to quell Democrats' concerns, but have actually exacerbated their agitation. Froman's vague promises that TPP was on the level, coupled with his claim that union interests have been granted an unprecedented level of access to the deal already, were greeted as being "just downright silly."

As one member of the meeting told HuffPo (again, anonymously): "Consultation is not the same thing as transparency. We do have the opportunity to come to the table, but it's the same thing every time. We don't have access to the text."

Another meeting participant was even more scathing in their criticism, saying, "When you go on a charm offensive, it's probably not helpful to tell the targets of your seduction a bunch of lies, that if they knew better, they'd agree with you, and any time they call you on your lies, they're being hostile."

More from HuffPo:

People at the meeting generally agreed with the Froman's philosophical orientation, but said they don't think the deal lives up to the sales pitch. Environmental groups have been deeply critical of the leaked environmental chapter, for instance.

Froman's most concrete offering to the progressive community of late is a new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, which would give liberal nonprofit groups privileged access to further briefings and negotiation documents, which they would be barred from sharing with other groups or the public. Hundreds of corporations and a handful of nonprofit groups already have this access through the administration's Industry Trade Advisory Committees.

But representatives of some groups believe Froman's panel will result in little policy-making leverage. Indeed, the idea for a dedicated nonprofit committee was initially put forward by corporate interests, which presented it as an alternative to including progressive groups on the existing committees. Business groups worried that including nonprofit organizations would dilute the influence of corporate interests.

"Exports are created by business, investments are created by business, and good, high-paying jobs are created by businesses," Fanwood Chemical Inc. president Jim DeLisi said at an October 2010 hearing of chairmen of Industry Trade Advisory Committees. "The key point of this whole system is to be sure that the [government] negotiators understand the needs of businesses."

Several groups, including the Sierra Club, according to sources, declined to be a part of Froman's new committee, dealing a further blow to administration efforts to include liberals.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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