Who's down with TPP?: Big business wins and democracy loses as both parties lie about free trade

Both parties line up to back a job-killing trade deal without even reading it. The hypocrisy is staggering

Published May 17, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Cliff Owen/Carolyn Kaster/Evan Vucci/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Reuters/Cliff Owen/Carolyn Kaster/Evan Vucci/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

If you need further proof of your democracy’s ill health, the Senate provided plenty of it this week as it began debating whether to fast track President Obama’s much-beloved Trans Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP). By passing the bill Congress, would divest itself of its constitutional right to amend the agreement. On Thursday, the "world’s greatest deliberative body" signaled it will do just that. Debate will extend into the coming week -- but make no mistake, in the Senate, the fix is in.

Acceptance or rejection of the agreement will be the most consequential decision Congress has made since greenlighting the Iraq war. Yet no member of the public has been allowed to read the document. Neither has any member of Congress, really. A copy lies in a locked room in the Capitol basement. There, relieved by security guards of any cell phones, cameras or recorders, members may read it but are not allowed to take any notes.

We gripe about legislators not reading bills, but doing so can be a colossal waste of time. Bills are often literally unreadable. To tell a member of Congress to sit under guard in an airless room perusing an impenetrable text insults not just that member but democracy itself. We shouldn’t castigate those who decline the invitation, just those who’d stop others from making changes to a treaty they haven’t read.

Few in or out of politics grasp the TPP’s epic scope. This is partly due to the secrecy in which it is shrouded but also to how both sides have framed the debate. At stake are rules governing a quarter of all world trade. These rules may well supplant those in other trade agreements and so affect nearly all global trade. But that’s not the all of it, not by a long shot. The first thing you need to know about the trade agreement is that it’s about so much more than trade.

Of its 30 or so chapters, only seven or eight pertain to what we think of as trade issues: tariffs, quotas, dumping and the like. Other chapters lay down rules that affect all commerce. Intellectual property law gets a lot of attention, being of special concern to American business. One chapter sets up a process by which appointed tribunals will arbitrate disputes arising between governments and international traders.

Under most modern trade agreements any law may be deemed a ‘nontariff trade barrier’ and thus subject to arbitration. That means not just trade but everything: finance, public health and safety, labor and environmental laws. It’s how Philip Morris sued Uruguay for requiring cigarette packs to feature explicit warnings and graphic images. It’s why Canada’s finance minister thinks his country can challenge our country’s law barring our commercial banks from speculating in securities. (The so-called Volcker Rule)

The procedures for settling TPP disputes violate basic precepts of due process. All tribunal judgements are final; there’s no appealing to a real court of law. Tribunals do much of their work out of public view; in a split decision, the dissenting opinion isn’t even published. The process is off limits to citizens and even state attorneys general. High costs can deter a small nation. In 2013 Uruguay’s government collected $15 billion in revenue while Philip Morris hauled in $80 billion. Anti-smoking crusader Mike Bloomberg will help foot the bill for Uruguay’s defense.

TPP backers concede that ‘free trade’ inflicts short term pain but say that in time it spurs growth, raises wages and creates jobs. The part about growth may be true. In 20 years living under NAFTA, growth has been stronger in North America than in Europe. But lately we’ve learned the hard way that a rising tide no longer lifts all boats. Since NAFTA, corporate profits and CEO salaries have far outpaced growth, but median incomes haven’t budged. Twenty years ago there were 17 million manufacturing jobs in America. Now there are 12 million. In 1993 we had a $4 billion trade surplus with Mexico. In 2012 we had a $54 billion deficit.

Free trade ideologues used to say it even reduced income inequality, but you rarely hear that now. In rich and poor countries alike, inequality just gets worse. We now know trade deals don’t raise wages or create jobs for middle-class Americans. In the poorest countries the jobs they create pay enough to lift people out of absolute poverty but not out of misery or into the middle class. Since NAFTA, 2 million small farmers in Mexico have been driven out of business and off their land by an influx of cheap corn imported from American agribusinesses. Most of their land went to Mexican agribusinesses. No one knows where the farmers went.

The TPP is less about trade among nations than it is about the relationship of global corporations to nation states and to democracy itself. To business it’s one more chance to make an end run around democracy. It’s a power grab, a brazen attempt by business to remove the regulation of commerce and whole chunks of the social contract from the Democratic process. Ralph Nader summed it up succinctly when he called it “’a corporate coup d’etat.”

Trade has a nice way of exposing both parties’ hypocrisy. Republicans are easy targets since they went insane, so I’ll do them first. You know how they hate foreign influence of any kind. They despise judges who cite foreign cases. They dismiss universal health care as ‘European’ even though the retort only works on people who’ve never been to Europe. They fretted over blue helmeted U.N. troops till they heard some of our troops were from blue states. If they care about anything it’s sovereignty -- except when it comes to trade.

The TPP may prove the most significant surrender of sovereignty in our nation’s history. If approved and ratified it will be the supreme law of the land. Under it, 11 nations may vest people with power to nullify any state or federal edict they deem a ‘nontariff trade barrier’. You’d think it would catch some heavy GOP flak, and to be fair, in the House it has. Yet every party leader will vote to bar any future change to it without ever having read it. Why? Big Business wants them to.

Republicans have spent the last few years kicking and screaming about Obama’s alleged usurpation of congressional powers. Their favorite word for it is ‘tyranny.’ Now he asks them to forfeit their right to amend the most historic treaty they’ll ever consider and they’re dying to do it. How come? Big business wants them to.

Republicans love the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights. It’s the one that reserves to the states and people all rights not delegated by the constitution to the federal government. When a TPP tribunal overrides a state law, there’ll be nothing a state can do but curse. Why would they abide such a travesty? You know why.

States’ rights, separation of powers, sovereignty: Republicans toss them all aside to pursue corporate agendas. They say they want to give us ‘freedom of choice’ to buy health care plans across state lines, but what they want is to strip states of the right to set standards for plans, an old health insurers’ dream. They do it on issues from ‘tort reform’ to agriculture to utility regulation. They hate the commerce clause, but not when asserting federal jurisdiction to keep states from protecting the public health and safety. It’s not such a clever game. If Democrats had appetite or aptitude for debate they’d have called them out on it by now.

The Democrats’ hypocrisy is less amusing and more important. On Tuesday they staged a pantomime of fast track resistance that should have fooled no one but seemed to fool everyone. Forty-four of 46 Senate Democrats, three more than needed to sustain a filibuster, voted against a motion to let the bill go forward. (Tom Carper of Delaware voted with Republicans; New Jersey’s Cory Booker was visiting a sick friend)

Politico called it a “stunning defeat” for Obama; the White House called it a snafu. It was neither. Democrats were just caught in their familiar bind of needing to send highly conflicting signals to their donors and their base. The next day, 10 free trade Dems who had stuck with their caucus met with Obama, who pretended to lean on them by releasing their names to the press, of all things. All 10 converted on the spot. Hours later, Senate leaders agreed to a compromise that was little more than a fig leaf for Democrats. Amazingly enough, the press treated the whole business as if it were something other than mere shadow puppetry.

On Thursday, 11 Democrats voted with Republicans to start debate. Thirty-three voted no but among them were the leaders who engineered their surrender after a battle lasting less than 24 hours, as well as a few free-trader types such as Booker. TPP backers can now tell the base they tried to stop it, just as opponents can tell donors it was all just a game. What any of them really believes, no one can say.

No one can say what Hillary Clinton believes either but if she’s against the treaty she’s had a conversion experience more profound than the one that turned those 10 senators around. NPR’s Tamara Keith says that since announcing her campaign Clinton has answered 13 questions from reporters. Most were of the ‘how do you like Iowa?’ type. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell got one in on trade. Here’s Clinton’s reply:

"Well, any trade deal has to produce jobs, and raise wages, and increase prosperity and protect our security. And we have to do our part in making sure we have the capabilities and the skills to be competitive.”

Okay, then. Pundits say she feels pressure on the issue but it’s hard to see who’s applying it. Because our politics let her vanish into social media and encounters with ‘everyday Americans,’ it can’t be the press. Labor sounds off but for six years AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has been a staunch Obama defender and Clinton knows that as hard as labor fought NAFTA, it fought harder to elect its biggest backer, her husband Bill. Her supporters ask nothing of her. Oddly, neither do her opponents. I don’t know what Bernie Sanders has been up to lately, but the time to challenge Hillary to debate the TPP is right now.

The one Democrat whose views we can be sure of is Obama. He still thinks more trade and faster growth can fix what ails us. In 2008 he vowed to clean up politics, raise the minimum wage, pass a public option and save millions of homeowners from going under but I doubt he thought about it enough to know if he meant it. It turns out he isn’t an economic populist or even a political reformer. If he opposed this deal he could get something for it, but he wants it as much as any Republican.

Everything Obama thinks about this trade deal is wrong. It’s not just that it can’t fix problems of jobless growth, wage stagnation and income inequality. It causes them to grow worse. The supranational investor/state system it puts in place kills political and economic democracy. Obama says it will “level the playing field” but what it will level is everything small or new, big being synonymous with old.

Hardest to explain is the relative silence of progressives. Sovereignty, states’ rights and separation of powers are key issues to Republicans, but economic populism is the very DNA of Democrats. Their leaders are heirs to Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan and Roosevelt. When they abandon working families to align with corporate elites it’s tantamount to Republicans abandoning their base on guns, taxes and abortion. Imagine the outcry of the Tea Party and the speed with which it would primary every defector. Will even one Democrat be primaried over the TPP? Labor says it is disappointed by Democrats, but one wonders if it has a bottom line.

When Obama was coming up, no Democrat was taken seriously by the elites unless he or she embraced globalization and snickered discreetly at liberals and labor. That’s changing, but not fast enough. Absent an independent progressive movement to put real pressure on politicians, change never comes fast enough. It’s an awful price to pay, but perhaps this latest outrage will spark one.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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