First of all, I think President Obama is right. We live in a globalized world and trade with other countries is a fact of life. Our only option is to create the best conditions for ourselves and the rest of the world. And so its not a matter of simply rejecting trade deals, its the content that matters.
Simply screaming NAFTA! doesn't cut it for me. All trade deals are not the same. As an example, both the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers supported the free trade agreement President Obama negotiated with South Korea a few years ago. So its clear that there are good trade agreements and bad ones.
Just as we've had to note lately that no agreement with Iran over their nuclear weapons program is going to be perfect, we have to accept that no trade deal is ever going to be perfect. By nature, negotiations like this mean making compromises. Ultimately then, the question will be whether or not TPP is good enough.
The overall answer to that question is "we don't know." We do know that Congress and various groups that will be affected have been consulted during the negotiations. But in order to protect the nature of the process, a lot of what has been agreed to is still either in process or secret.
Recently Wikileaks leaked a chapter related to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). It allows foreign companies and investors to sue federal, state, or local governments over changes to their laws that unfairly affect their businesses and to have those suits heard before a tribunal with the World Bank or the United Nations. Opponents of TPP fear that this will be used to sue U.S. jurisdictions for regulations related to climate change or labor laws.
But as this article points out, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- This kind of ISDS is already included in 3,000 trade agreements around the globe, including 51 in which the U.S. is currently involved,
- Over the last 25 years, the U.S. has experienced 17 investor-state cases, 13 of which went before tribunals, and has not lost one (for comparison, during that same time the federal government was sued 700,000 in domestic courts),
- Even if the U.S. lost a case before an ISDS tribunal, they do not have the power to change laws,
- Leaked documents contain mitigating language like "“nothing in this chapter” should prevent a member country from regulating investment activity for “environmental, health or other regulatory objectives.” So there is clearly an attempt by negotiators to protect critical areas.
Until we can review the actual agreement, the final area I consider in all this is the track record of those who are lined up on either side of this issue. Many of those who oppose TPP are the same ones who thought that Dodd/Frank was weak tea and Obamacare was simply a give-away to private insurers. It is impossible to avoid the question of whether or not their opposition is more about the agreement's lack of purity when, as I stated above, the question is really whether it's good enough.
Over the last six years it has almost always been a good idea to bet on President Obama. He is not above making mistakes. But I think he's clearly proven that his North Star is what is best for the American people. The old line about him being a sell-out to the corporate world has lost all it's punch by now. So when it comes to this agreement, it is really about whether or not he and his staff can execute - not their motivations.
It's also interesting that the Obama administration has put together a group called "Progressive Coalition for American Jobs" to lobby for approval of TPP. Members include former governors Deval Patrick and Christine Gregoire as well as former Dallas mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. While I am especially impressed with the inclusion of Patrick, it might also be that mayors and governors are more attuned to the impact of trade on jobs and businesses than certain senators who are speaking out against TPP.
I view the whole issue of fast-track authority over TPP as a separate issue from assessing the quality of the agreement. And that's where the pragmatist in me really takes over. As I've written before, this Congress has abdicated its role on foreign policy. Opening the approval process up to members of the Senate is a guaranteed way to kill the treaty (perhaps what the opponents want) just as surely as President Obama's submission of his ISIS AUMF was killed. We can certainly work for the day that our Congress is able to function around foreign policy in a meaningful way. But that is certainly not the case right now.
That's my assessment so far. I'd suggest that if liberals want to win over pragmatists like me in fighting TPP, they haven't done so yet.