By Anne Meador
The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on January 16 on a bill that would renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for the President, allowing trade treaties to be “fast tracked” through Congress. The measure was introduced by Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) last week, just as far-reaching “free trade” agreements with Asian and European countries are nearing completion.
President Obama is pursuing two controversial trade agreements, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and it is widely agreed that he needs fast track authority to move forward. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) however took several opportunities to protest the absence of the U.S. Trade Representative, lambasting the President for “leading from behind” when it came to TPA.
Supporters of the TPA bill outnumbered detractors at the hearing. Of the four witnesses testifying, only one, Larry Cohen of the Communication Workers of America, spoke out against it. A few committee members in attendance, including Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA), were opposed.
The two sides had radically different interpretations of the results of past free trade agreements and predicted outcomes if Congress handed TPA to the President now. Summing up their gap in perspectives, Sen. Hatch peevishly said to Larry Cohen, “You and I are living in an alternative universe.”
“Why can’t unions see that TPA is needed?” Hatch asked Cohen.
From Cohen’s standpoint however, the issue lay more with the TPA bill proposed by Baucus, not with TPA itself. “We need Trade Promotion Authority to create a sense of balance and fairness from the framework of the American people, not just of the large multinational corporations,” said Cohen.
Margaret Flowers of the FlushTheTPP campaign, one of the protestors who held signs saying “TPP: How Low Can Wages Go?” during the hearing, criticized the fast track bill for putting limits on floor debate, barring Congress from making amendments, and requiring “a straight up-and-down vote.”
It would also, she said, be a continuation of the secrecy surrounding negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership. The only text released to the public so far has been leaked. She doesn’t think fast track passage through Congress would improve transparency in any way.
“[Even] Congress has limited access to the text, while 600 corporate advisers have ready access,” she said. “It will be pushed through without any review or transparency, and that’s going to set the global template for trade.” Hatch promised transparency during the legislative process.
Objections to the TPP and TTIP rest largely on the powers they give corporations to override domestic laws in violation of state sovereignty. Sen. Brown asked about the ability of corporations to sue foreign governments. “Do we want that power?” he asked.
Cote deferred. “That’s a level of legal complexity that’s beyond me,” he said. Elena Stegemann, a small business owner who also represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stated that she had “no experience in these matters.” But Cohen sharply condemned it. “We cannot have democracy if corporations have super rights to enforce their control,” he said.
TPA would expedite the removal of barriers to trade, supporters argued. Baucus, in his opening remarks, stressed the need “to level the playing field.” Stegemann echoed him by saying, “The international playing field is unfairly tilted against American workers.”
They and David Cote, Chairman and CEO of Honeywell, say that TPA will help pass free trade agreements that will allow the export of more American goods and employ more American workers. They pointed to NAFTA, which was put into effect twenty years ago.
According to Cohen, however, NAFTA exported American jobs, not goods. “It’s common knowledge that since NAFTA, trade deficits have gone up five-fold,” he said. “The question is, where does production occur? A multinational doesn’t really care, or can’t.”
While Honeywell has a global workforce of 132,000, only 58,000 of them are located in the U.S.
By the end of the hearing, Hatch became exasperated with Cohen. “I feel really deeply about this,” he said. ”Your argument is that trade costs jobs.”
But Cohen was not buying the alternate universe theory. “We want world trade. We must have world trade,” he said. “We have a global economy in the same way we have a global climate. The idea is, how do we promote the kind of sustainable trade, sustainable production that we can be proud of?”
Video of protestors, including Margaret Flowers, speaking out against Fast Track and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) after the conclusion of the hearing: