Trans Pacific Partnership: Obama ready to defy Democrats to push secretive trade deal

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The TPP has drawn the ire of Democ­rats includ­ing Eliz­a­beth War­ren who object it will destroy jobs, lim­it online free­dom, increase out­sourc­ing and derail cli­mate agree­ments. Iron­i­cal­ly, it has made allies of his GOP rivals.

 A protester holds a placard during a rally against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Tokyo. Photograph: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

A pro­test­er holds a plac­ard dur­ing a ral­ly against the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP) in Tokyo. Pho­to­graph: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

The Trans Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship is a trade agree­ment so sig­nif­i­cant and impor­tant, its details can’t be disclosed.

The TPP, sure to make an appear­ance dur­ing tonight’s State of the Union, is a 21st-cen­tu­ry trade agree­ment involv­ing 11 Asian coun­tries along the Pacif­ic Rim, and said to cov­er 40% of the world’s economy.

The TPP is a sub­ject close to the heart – and the eco­nom­ic plans – of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma. In a Novem­ber trip to Bei­jing, he urged oth­er world lead­ers to final­ize the agree­ment, call­ing it a “high pri­or­i­ty” that would strength­en Amer­i­can lead­er­ship in the Asia-Pacif­ic region and lead to growth, invest­ment and job prospects for more workers.

The admin­is­tra­tion has argued that the deal will allow low­er tar­iffs for Amer­i­can exports, in an envi­ron­ment of increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion, espe­cial­ly from Chi­na. Oba­ma is also tout­ing the deal as a boon for small busi­ness­es. When 98% of the US’s exporters are small busi­ness­es, new trade part­ner­ships will help them cre­ate even more jobs, he pro­claimed in last year’s State of the Union address. “Lis­ten, Chi­na and Europe are not stand­ing on the side­lines. Nei­ther should we.”

Right now, Amer­i­can cit­i­zens will have to take those promis­es about the impact of the TPP on faith.

The TPP is one of the largest inter­na­tion­al trade agree­ments the US will sign, yet most of it is mired in secre­cy. Con­gress won’t have access to the TPP before it is signed, and the terms won’t be pub­licly dis­closed – iron­ic since the nego­ti­a­tions include 600 cor­po­rate advis­ers, includ­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Hal­libur­ton and Caterpillar.

A chunk of the trade deal was leaked most recent­ly by a Wik­ileaks release. “Every­thing we know about it are from doc­u­ment leaks,” says Maira Sut­ton, a pol­i­cy ana­lyst at the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foundation.

That sets light to the anger of Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders, who has called the TPP “dis­as­trous” and “writ­ten behind closed doors by the cor­po­rate world”. He denounced its pur­pose “to pro­tect the inter­ests of the largest multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions at the expense of work­ers, con­sumers, the envi­ron­ment and the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can democracy.”

It’s not just Sanders, who is among the most pro­gres­sive in Con­gress. Democ­rats have long expressed their oppo­si­tion to the deal, even though 14 unions and con­sumer groups and envi­ron­men­tal groups are also involved in the negotiations.

No mat­ter: the pres­i­dent says he is ready to defy his fel­low Democ­rats to push through the TPP. In a case of odd bed­fel­lows, Oba­ma has found new Repub­li­can allies in pur­su­ing the deal.

US trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive Michael Fro­man promised that the Trans Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship was on course and due in as lit­tle as two months.

Obama’s State of the Union address should give the TPP anoth­er push – even as pub­lic inter­est groups, trade experts and dig­i­tal free­dom advo­cates voice their crit­i­cism of the agree­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly its secrecy.

Don’t fight the last war’

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, and House speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, claiming that the TPP will lead to more small business job creation. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

The US vice-pres­i­dent, Joe Biden, and House speak­er John Boehn­er of Ohio lis­ten as Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma gives his State of the Union address on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, claim­ing that the TPP will lead to more small busi­ness job cre­ation. Pho­to­graph: Charles Dharapak/AP

What makes the TPP dis­taste­ful to experts is its resem­blance to the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (Naf­ta), signed in 1994 between the US, Cana­da and Mexico.

Post-Naf­ta, the US saw a mass exo­dus of jobs, with near­ly 700,000 jobs off­shored, 60.8% of them in man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Now as the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion uses the same ver­biage as the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion used two decades ago, trade experts are alarmed at what is to come. The incen­tives of the Trans Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship are going to cause mil­lions of addi­tion­al jobs to be lost, says Lori Wal­lach, the direc­tor of Glob­al Trade Watch.

Wal­lach quotes the Depart­ment of Labor sta­tis­tics to show that the work­ers in the US who lose their jobs to trade agree­ments in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor when re-employed earn only three-quar­ters of their orig­i­nal earn­ings, in three out of five cases.

The oppo­si­tion to the trade agree­ment com­pris­es unions, envi­ron­men­tal, con­sumer groups – in oth­er words, the entire Demo­c­ra­t­ic base,” says Wallach.

Wal­lach says that the agree­ment is based on the terms of the US-Korea free-trade agree­ment, which were derived from Naf­ta. The com­pli­ca­tions include lim­its on food safe­ty and a ban on the export of gas derived from frack­ing – which “would lim­it our abil­i­ty to have ener­gy poli­cies to com­bat the cli­mate cri­sis”, Wal­lach says.

Anoth­er com­pli­ca­tion: the terms of the TPP won’t be open to debate. A fast-track treat­ment is like­ly, with Con­gress imple­ment­ing the deal with­out changes.

The pres­i­dent wants the author­i­ty to rail­road through Con­gress to sign the agree­ment even before Con­gress,” explains Wal­lach, say­ing it del­e­gates con­gres­sion­al author­i­ty to the president.

Yet Oba­ma insists that the TPP’s terms are new and improved. The president’s only advice to crit­ics: “Don’t fight the last war.”

It copies and pastes US law into inter­na­tion­al law’

The Trans Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship, although billed as a trade agree­ment, includes pro­vi­sions on intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty and copy­right that are usu­al­ly out­side the bound­aries of trade, crit­ics say.

For instance, there is a scuf­fle around the TPP’s rumored treat­ment of Dig­i­tal Rights Man­age­ment tools, which cor­po­ra­tions use to lim­it access to dig­i­tal devices – often to pre­vent piracy.

TPP has pro­vi­sions that make it a crime to break these locks, and to do things that aren’t even copy­right infringement.

These DRM laws pre­vent us from doing that research legal­ly,” says Maira Sut­ton, a pol­i­cy ana­lyst at Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. “That’s our main concern.”

Sut­ton objects that the TPP will extend prob­lem­at­ic US laws into inter­na­tion­al law. One exam­ple: the Com­put­er Fraud and Abuse Act, which pros­e­cu­tors used to hound open-web advo­cate Aaron Swartz.

Sim­i­lar pro­vi­sions in the TPP that will pre­vent whistle­blow­ers and jour­nal­ists from access­ing or ‘dis­clos­ing’ trade secrets through a com­put­er sys­tem,” Sut­ton says.

Information access advocate Aaron Swartz speaks to a crowd. Photograph: Daniel J. Sieradski/dpa/Corbis

Infor­ma­tion access advo­cate Aaron Swartz speaks to a crowd. Pho­to­graph: Daniel J. Sieradski/dpa/Corbis

Sut­ton adds that the recent Sony hacks would not be report­ed freely under the pro­vi­sions of the TPP, says Sutton.

The third issue the EFF is con­cerned with is that of inter­me­di­ary lia­bil­i­ty, which bur­dens ISPs and web­sites with stricter copy­right infringe­ment laws in a way that is veiled cen­sor­ship, cau­tions Sutton.

Cli­mate activists up in arms

Cli­mate activists have been the most vocif­er­ous in oppos­ing the TPP’s many terms. As John Fuller­ton wrote in the Guardian: “What few seem to real­ize is that this agree­ment, if approved as is, could make it vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for the Unit­ed States to meet its cur­rent and future cli­mate pledges.”

Eliz­a­beth War­ren too has come out against the deal. In a let­ter to Fro­man last year, War­ren and two oth­er Sen­a­tors object­ed that the TPP “could make it hard­er for Con­gress and reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies to pre­vent future finan­cial crises”.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote to Michael Froman, objecting to the TPP’s terms that undermine major Wall Street reform. Photograph: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren of Mass­a­chu­setts wrote to Michael Fro­man, object­ing to the TPP’s terms that under­mine major Wall Street reform. Pho­to­graph: Jose Luis Magana/AP

War­ren and oth­ers have raised con­cern over a pro­vi­sion called “investor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment” which gives for­eign cor­po­ra­tions the polit­i­cal pow­er to chal­lenge US laws in front of a small pri­vate group of attor­neys that answers to no country.

If the for­eign coun­try pre­vails, the pan­el can order com­pen­sa­tion from Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers with­out any review by Amer­i­can courts,” War­ren warned. One such pan­el in 2006 forced the Czech Repub­lic to pay $236m to a Dutch bank for not pro­vid­ing it with a bailout, War­ren wrote.

Even though dis­sent is plen­ty, the means for these pub­lic advo­cates to get involved in the TPP are few.

Pub­lic inter­est groups that want to be on trade advi­so­ry com­mit­tees in order to par­tic­i­pate in the nego­ti­a­tions are required to sign non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments, which robs them of the voice to object.

Sut­ton, of the EFF, says it is the organization’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to share infor­ma­tion with the pub­lic and to do pub­lic advocacy.

If we were to sign on to this trade advi­so­ry com­mit­tee to influ­ence the text, then we tie our hands behind our backs to do the work that we need to do,” she tells the Guardian.