… but they don’t like it. That’s my take-away from reading the letter that 151 House Democrats issued last week in apparent opposition to how their own Democratic president is negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Does anybody out there remember how the United States got pushed down the track of insisting that any trade agreement must address more and more issues that are not traditional topics for trade agreements? It was the left-wing of the Democratic party that pushed to have the FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea get into issues like labor relations and environmental rules. These are worthwhile things to talk about, but they go far beyond what a trade agreement is normally able to handle. The lefties pushed for it anyway and apparently didn’t mind when these three agreements were each delayed for several years while our competitors merrily agreed to many more agreements that the United States was unable to match. The Democratic left wing appeared delighted when the Obama Administration launched talks for an expanded TPP that is slated to cover a whole raft of non-traditional issues (as described in their letter):
Beyond traditional tariff issues, these include policies related to labor, patent and copyright, land use, food, agriculture and product standards, natural resources, the environment, professional licensing, competition, state-owned enterprises and government procurement policies, as well as financial, healthcare, energy, e-commerce, telecommunications and other service sector regulations.
Experienced negotiators (ahem) warned that this was far too much weight for a trade agreement to carry, but were ignored by the politicals.
So, having won the battle to include all these issues in a trade agreement, what are the House Democrats beefing about? Now they say that their own Administration is not consulting with them. I have no way of knowing if that is the case or not. It certainly was not in earlier negotiations when we often had members of Congress sitting in the meeting rooms as part of U.S. negotiating teams and Congressional staffers participated in developing U.S. positions. I assume they have been offered the same sort of access for the TPP and T-TIP talks, but I don’t know for sure.
Whatever the situation, the letter from the 151 House Democrats offers a threat that is almost guaranteed to destroy their own objectives. That assumes that they are still interested in progress on the ton of issues they earlier added to the talks. Their threat is to vote against “Fast Track” authority that would require an up-or-down vote on an entire agreement – obviating the Congressional penchant for picking such things to death piecemeal by amendment. An agreement like the TPP is already a highly complex, finely balanced compromise that is quite likely to fall apart if it can be amended by Congress. Given the recent behavior of the U.S. Congress, if I were a foreign negotiator, I would refuse to sign such an agreement until after I could see what damage our fine members of Congress have done to it.
In a similar vein, though she is not involved in the letter from the House Dems, Senator Elizabeth Warren (with whom I often agree) put her foot in her mouth last week when she complained about the Administration’s “rush” to negotiate “questionable new trade accords.” One wonders about the good Senator’s definition of rush. Few remember that the search for an expanded TPP was originally suggested by a Bush Administration trade representative (horrors!) and that it has been under negotiation throughout the Obama reign in the White House. Let’s see: We are two months shy of Obama completing his 5th year in the Presidency. Is that such a rush? I don’t think so. perhaps it simply means that Democrats in the Congress weren’t paying attention. Perish the thought.
Much too is being made of the despicable idea that trade talks don’t take place in the full glare of public disclosure. Wikileaks last week published a stolen copy of the draft TPP chapter on intellectual property. I recommend you look at it, as it is a good example of a treaty in progress. It reflects agreements and disagreements among the negotiating partners and is a practical example of how negotiators put disparate ideas together so that they can focus on narrowing the things they disagree about. This is a process that is necessarily not done in public. The reason for that is that the media and kibitzing politicians do not allow negotiators to change positions or compromise once a position is publicly stated. But how do you reach compromise without change? Surely this is a process that should be no surprise to our politicians, but apparently they are shocked that negotiators get better results in quiet rooms. Perhaps they prefer dueling press conferences.
The 151 House Democrats have been joined in their threat to reject Fast Track by 27 House Republicans. These seem to be a combination of the old isolationist wing of the GOP with new Tea Party Republican members who seemingly fail to understand what Fast Track is. One would think that agreement with the Tea Party would cause the House Democrats to question their own position, but no. Does anybody else see the absurdity of an alliance between the left-wing Democrats and the right-wing Republicans? While not yet a majority of the House, these two groups are close enough to cast significant doubt over the future of the TPP, T-TIP or any other trade agreement that comes up. Strange bedfellows.