Earlier this week, President Barack Obama appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” to push for a sweeping, multinational trade deal known as the Transpacific Partnership, or TPP. But in reality, right now, because of the timing, Obama is campaigning for approval of TPA — or trade promotion authority, also known as fast track — which was introduced in Congress earlier this month.
TPA is authority that Congress grants the president to negotiate and enter into trade agreements with foreign nations, setting out trade objectives and procedures for informing Congress and for the Congressional approval process.
In practical terms, the TPP has been in negotiations for years. Working groups for different parts of the pact have included administration officials and, overwhelmingly, actually, executives and lobbyists from the private industries hoping to benefit from the deal. There is a draft Pacific trade treaty already, though it is officially a secret to all but those negotiating it, and, recently, any members of Congress that wanted to bother to go and look.
What Obama wants most urgently approved right now, that fast track authority, strips Congress of much of its usual advise and consent role, taking away the ability to amend or change any provisions in the TPP, and subjecting it only to a general debate and an up-or-down vote.
Fast track/trade promotion authority is far from a time-honored tradition, emerging only during Richard Nixon’s administration in the early 1970s as a way of getting what was called the Tokyo Round, a multilateral trade deal, through a Congress growing increasingly hostile to an embattled president. It is not the trade deal itself, but, as the name says, authority, granted to the executive branch, and it often extends beyond any one specific pact’s ratification.
Most of the current debate has focused on what might be in the TPP itself, and to this point, the president’s attack on those who criticize without knowing could theoretically be appropriate. The deal was cut in secret, and what the general public knows is as a result of leaks, WikiLeaks, and hints from parties privy to the negotiations.
“Wait and see what we actually have in this deal,” Obama said to his critics during the Hardball appearance, “before you make those judgments.”
But asking people to withhold judgment until the deal is public is asking critics to remain silent until after the ability to adjust or amend the TPP is voted away. The president is, in effect, saying, please refrain from debate until that debate would be practically meaningless.
If Congress approves TPA — grants the White House fast-track authority — the only option left to critics is an outright rejection of the entire TPP, during that yes-or-no vote with no amendments allowed.
Now, it is true, members of Congress have recently been allowed to see the text of the mammoth trade pact, but they are not allowed to talk about it — not in public, anyway.
“The president says he wants the American people to judge this deal based on the facts, but we can’t put the facts out there,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow the day after the Obama “Hardball” appearance. Warren, a vocal opponent of both TPA and TPP, said that a vote for fast track would “grease the skids” for the secret trade deal, and that the president wanted the US electorate to give up all the tools to change the TPP first, “and then you’ll get to see the deal on the other side.”
Warren said that 85 percent of those in the working group negotiations were executives from private corporations or the lobbyists who represent them. The Massachusetts Democrat, who said she has read the draft, said much of what is in the deal wouldn’t pass Congress on its own. “Get the deal out there,” Warren said, “and then we’ll have a debate on the facts.”
Should Congress sign-off on trade promotion authority — and a vote could come next week — having that debate will be much more difficult. Singling out segments that might affect manufacturing jobs or farms, privacy and copyright, sanctions and tariffs or climate and pollution would be academic — the deal would have to stand or fall as a whole.
But some of the facts about the TPA are known. Beyond restricting debate on the TPP, as written, the TPA would grant the executive branch fast track authority through at least 2018, and likely through 2021, meaning not just Obama, but his successor, and possibly the president after that, would also benefit from the ability to negotiate trade deals without fear of congressional checks and balances.
Indeed, some in Congress are trying to get language into the TPA that would influence negotiations on TTIP — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — the massive multilateral trade pact with the EU that is expected to be the next big treaty after TPP. Also expected to be included under this TPA, the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), a prospective deal that presently includes 22 countries.
Will TPP, TTIP and TISA encourage or discourage U.S. economic growth? Will they incentivize the offshoring of jobs and taxable income? Will they destroy indigenous agriculture in member nations? Will they exert downward pressure on wages? Will they protect intellectual property, promote privacy and prevent cyberespionage? Will they override strict environmental protections or exacerbate the harms of climate change? All good questions — but all questions it will be much harder answer if the president and his negotiators are given trade promotion authority.
If knowledge is power, then what is the opposite?