By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
One of the common rhetorical tropes supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have used to sell it is to declaim all prior trade agreements as inferior, relative to this bright, shiny and new deal. As Senator Warren’s staff showed in their report this week, for twenty years trade boosters have called the deal currently on offer “the most progressive agreement in history” or some similar flourish. When the promises fail to come true, trade supporters bury the past, and assert that this time is different. Ron Wyden, the Democrat in Congress most responsible for moving TPP through – expect final passage on fast-track trade authority in the Senate before they leave for Memorial Day recess – gave a particularly juicy example of this yesterday.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Wyden engaged in a soliloquy about TPP’s environmental and labor protections. And he specifically contrasted them with protections in NAFTA. Let me quote at length; you can watch here, it’s at around the 7 hour, 37 minute mark:
I know that a number of my colleagues when they talked earlier were concerned about these issues as well. Suffice it to say on workers’ rights and environmental protections, if you go back to the 1990s in the NAFTA era, these vital priorities were basically shunted to the side. It would be almost inflationary to say they got short shrift. They basically got no shrift. They were unenforceable side deals. This meant that the United States in effect had to take it on blind faith that our partners would live up to their commitments. It was my view and that of many of my colleagues, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, were spot-on in saying that that wasn’t good enough. This trade package will say in clear terms that the United States is done allowing labor and environmental protections to be pushed aside and disregarded.
Our partners will be required to adopt and maintain core international labor standards – core international labor standards are going to be required of our trading partners. They will have to adopt them and they will have to maintain them. That’s not something that’s to the side and is unenforceable. That’s real. It’s got teeth. And also our partners would be required to adopt what are really common multilateral environmental agreements and these would be backed by the threat of trade sanctions.
We’ve actually had a lot of trade agreements since NAFTA where labor and environment protections were embedded in the deal; as the Warren report showed, violations were generally not enforced. But let’s look past that for a second, along with the incredibly funny “shrift” joke. Wyden says “it was my view” that NAFTA side agreements were not good enough. Hmm, I thought Wyden, at that time in the House, was a supporter of NAFTA? He voted for it, in fact.
The Congressional Record is a marvelous thing, because it preserves members’ floor remarks. So we know what Wyden thought about NAFTA, particularly about those “unenforceable side deals.” Here’s the Congressional Record from November 1993:
Madam Chairman, NAFTA is a job-creating machine, but it is also the best vehicle we now have to clean up pollution in North America. NAFTA directly links environmental protection to trade, funds environmental cleanup with $8 billion and penalizes countries for not enforcing their environmental laws with unprecedented penalties and fines.
I think it is also important that environmental reformers understand that if NAFTA goes down, the rules of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT] apply and GATT rules are weaker on environmental protection than are the NAFTA standards. That is why it is no accident that the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and millions of environmentalists are on record supporting this NAFTA.
Vote for cleaner air and water and less pollution in North America; support the NAFTA agreement.
Emphasis mine. To use the technical term, Wyden is a bullshit artist. And when the hype machine around trade deals has been so thoroughly and utterly wrong for twenty years, it’s entirely reasonable to question whether the new new version also won’t live up to the billing.
I also located an interesting clip from the evening of NAFTA’s passage in 1993, where Wyden was asked about the effect of securing the trade deal on negotiations with Asia. It’s here at around 18:30:
We have armed the president with real tools to go after those Asian markets. If the President had gone to APEC with a loss, he would have had no credibility at the bargaining table. Now the President can sit down with the Asians, as all of you know we have a $75 billion trade deficit with the Asians, and he’s got the credibility to force open those markets.
It’s almost as if one trade agreement sets the table for the next one!
“Credibility” is exactly what you’ll hear if fast track passes and TPP comes up for a vote. Members of Congress will be lectured that opposing TPP will be a diplomatic catastrophe, that a No vote will hurt America. But I’m amused by Wyden’s intoning of a $75 billion deficit with “the Asians” (it was a different time I suppose). Of course, today we have a $300 billion deficit just with China, and the South Korea free trade agreement only made our deficit worse.
None of this matters in the Senate, where cloture has been invoked on fast track, and Wyden’s bad messenger status sadly won the day. But the House is a different story. In reporting on this, various members have told me that the bill is either a dead letter in the House, or that the White House would need to flip every undecided and a few declared no votes. On the other hand, Republicans say that they have the votes in hand.
This will likely get a vote right after the House returns from recess on the week of June 1. So it’s crunch time, and if you feel strongly about this, it’s worth a call to your Congress-critter, especially if they’re on the fence.