As with other policy issues, there are smart and..uh…not-so-smart arguments that can be made against the trade deals being pursued by President Obama. A new NBC News interview of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi makes painfully clear that, during the run-up to the debate Congress is sure to have about these deals plus fast track negotiating authority, too many trade policy critics have been infatuated with the latter kind.
The evidence? Pelosi’s remarks, presented here, that fast track approval is possible “if there’s transparency; if we know what is in this bill, if there’s consultation.”
Pelosi of course is referring to the widespread complaints that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular has been negotiated in secret. Allegedly only the lobbyists for offshoring interests have been privy to the Obama administration’s strategy and tactics– and thus have been able to shape them – and representatives of the rest of America’s economy and society have been left in the dark.
As anyone who knows my work realizes, I’m no fan of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman (not that he seems any worse than any of his predecessors over the last forty years). But he has stated that “any Member of Congress can review the negotiating text and has the opportunity to receive detailed briefings,” and I have yet to hear any lawmaker claim that such a request has been rejected. Although the USTR office’s trade policy advisory system is indeed heavily and inexcusably weighted in favor of the offshoring lobby, enough Members of Congress are trade policy skeptics to ensure that the concerns of trade deal opponents are relayed in full to negotiators.
As for complaints that the actual trade talks are secret and that the public isn’t kept adequately informed: Please. That’s standard and vitally necessary operating procedure for all such negotiations, where governments always need to float ideas both serious and cynical, to test out possibilities and tradeoffs, and to smoke out their interlocutors’ real intentions and bottom lines.
Moreover, once the deals are concluded, the texts will be made public, so the secrecy arguments will be null and void, and critics will have to debate substance. There’s no shortage of major economic objections to the deals. But the fact that at this late date, the House Democratic leader seems so unaware of them, or so uninterested, strongly indicates that most critics have given short shrift to the – overriding – economic case.
It’s true that the TPP is far from being finished, and that the President has just made a new request to Congress for fast track authority. It’s also true that Pelosi made some (brief and – transparently – silly) comments about trade critics’ need to demonstrate good faith to the president in order to safeguard worker interests. But the ground should have been paved much more effectively over the last few years about what’s really wrong with these agreements and the predecessors on which they’re modeled.
Now the critics will need to win the equivalent of a relatively short and very intense firefight. Given the tide of money and armies lobbying manpower that can be quickly mobilized by the trade cheerleaders, they may well rue the opportunity they’ve wasted.