Ron Wyden Calls NAFTA Insufficient Now; In 1993, He Called It a “Vote For Less Pollution”

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.

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This entry was posted in Environment, The destruction of the middle class, TPP on by .

About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. NOTaREALmerican

    All of the peasants I know fall into two camps on this TPP thing:

    1) TPP?
    2) It will [ improve the lives of the children | make the US more competitive ] because the sociopaths I’ve been voting for, for the last 40 years, say so. But, what’s really important is [ global warming | ISIS] because [it | they] are gonna git us.

    Most of them are in camp 1.

    1. Vatch

      Yes, most are in camp 1. That’s why I send email messages about this to family members and friends. A few actually do something after they learn more about the toxic trade deals, and they can be either “conservative” or “liberal”. A few days ago, at a family get-together, someone looked up some information about the TPP on his smart phone after I told some people about the problems that the TPP will cause if passed.

    2. AlanSmithee

      Same here. Everyone who gives a rat’s patoote already knows about TPP. The rest don’t know and don’t want to know. (Deliberate ignorance is wonderful defense mechanism.)

    3. ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

      There are some in this camp.

      Big labor unions and liberal members of Congress have picked a fight against the global expansion of the rights of workers by mounting do-or-die opposition against the Trade Promotion bill moving through Congress that will allow the President to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

      These are the people who believe Obama can do no wrong. “Obots” indeed.

      1. Paul P

        Not quite a do or die fight on behalf of unions or progressive groups. The TPP has been negotiated in secret for six years, but it was an open secret to all who were following these issues. I first heard of the dangers of “free trade” in a talk by Seymour Melman sometime after the 1988 US and Canadian free trade agreement had been signed. This was before NAFTA and all the other agreements had been entered into. Melman talked about the expansion of the US and Canadian free trade agreement to Mexico and the threat the expansion of these free trade agreements posed to national sovereignty, workers, and the public.

        So, as a rank and file union member, you would think my union would have informed me of the threat. I did get a few email alerts from the AFL-CIO and from my union after the battle over fast track had heated up in the current Congress. But, nothing during the six years of secret TPP negotiations.

        Over the years, I would ask people if they knew about fast track. I asked union members, liberals, and left oriented people. Appalling ignorance. The president of a progressive Democratic club, when presented with a proposed resolution against fast track, asked, in genuine disbelief, “Why would Obama support allowing foreign corporations to sue the US government?”

        While the main stream media might have ignored the trade agreement system of multinational corporate governance, so did the unions and the progressive groups who failed to educate and involve their members in fighting these agreements. The people in Camp 1, who say, “TPP?” are there because of the failure of unions and progressive groups to mount an ongoing grassroots mobilization. Lest I be misunderstood, without unions, working people, the 99%, would have no institutional voice in politics. Unions, however diminished in numbers and power, are still the voice of working people. But, much of the power of unions lies fallow as more members know about David Letterman’s retirement than they do of secret government and the railroading of secret laws through Congress.

  2. Ned Ludd

    Sanders and Warren – or any other TPP opponent in the Senate – could have delayed the cloture vote by using Rule XIX.

    Under Rule XIX of the Senate, senators who have been recognized to speak may do so for as long as they wish and cannot be forced to cede the floor or even interrupted without their consent, according to the Congressional Research Service.

    Confusingly, “filibuster” refers to two separate tactics for delaying a vote in the Senate. Sixty votes will end a non-talking filibuster, where a senator “must only raise their hand to object”. In contrast, for talking filibusters (Rule XIX), no one is allowed to interrupt the senator who is talking.

  3. lambert strether

    This is great stuff; it’s like they think enough time has passed that they can run the same scam again.

  4. Sanctuary

    I can guarantee that if the Democrats vote for this appalling trade bill, it will mark the end of the Democratic Party. Obamacare is the penultimate nail in the coffin, the TPP is the final one. The Democrats passed a health care bill that has no cost controls, indirect/meager benefits, and direct/high costs. They instilled a program that will have them taking responsibility for each and every premium increase because people now HAVE to buy insurance. I thought THAT was the height of political malpractice. But how will you claim to be the standard bearer/protector of the middle class when, in addition to forced and non-cost controlled insurance, you pass a bill that forces middle class workers to compete with people making 60 cents an hour and enables all of our hard fought labor, consumer, and environmental laws to be gutted to comply with that bill? No. You will guarantee yourself the same future that the “centrist-seeking” Labor parties of Israel and the UK won for themselves: oblivion.

    1. qufuness

      Wyden voted against the Iraq invasion and has taken some good positions on the Internet and privacy protection over the years, but when it comes push to shove, he’s a corporatist. Because of his key role in promoting the horrible TPP, he deserves to be defeated in the next Democratic primary. Ditto for Feinstein, Cantwell and Murray, all of whom are supporting Fast Track and the TPP. If Oregon’s progressives can’t come up with a “populist” alternative to defeat Wyden in the 2016 primary, I’ll vote Republican for the first time in my life. No, not Green or Socialist. I’ll want the Democratic party to go down in total defeat so that something genuinely humane and effective can replace corporatist, secretist enablers like Wyden and Murray.

      1. Oregoncharles

        1) Your proposed strategy is…no, this is a family blog. Or so they say. (If there are children reading this, they should be sent to MIT IMMEDIATELY). It sends exactly the wrong message; this is a Republican bill. The Socialists aren’t on the ballot in Oregon; they all joined the Green Party. You can say what you mean by voting Green.

        And, in general: you can’t make things better by making them worse. It’s been tried.

        2) Everybody: Wyden has pasted a target to his back. The lead demonstrators at his town hall were the STEELWORKERS (who do not mince words). When a Democrat loses the unions, he’s in trouble. Wyden doubtless feels pretty safe (you could cut the arrogance with a knife). He’s a long term incumbent in a “blue” state. But the Pacific Green Party has made it a primary goal to take him down. For that purpose, we’re hunting for the strongest candidate possible. In all seriousness, if you have suggestions or are interested in running, contact us through the website,
        We have it covered – there WILL be a candidate, but we’re hoping for someone with name recognition and political experience.

        The Democrats make the rules around here; if they insist on us being “spoilers,” we might as well make the most of it.

        1. jrs

          No it’s not a Republican bill it’s a Democratic bill. It’s backed by the Democratic party, via Obama. It’s a Democratic bill through and through, the Democrats opposed to it ought to quit the party, become independent (like Sanders is currently) or whatever. It’s also supported by the Republicans of course, but it’s not a Republicans administration that has been negotiating it for 6 years.

          1. Oregoncharles

            It’s a perfect example of how thoroughly the Dems have adopted Republican “values.”

      2. kimsarah

        A wolf in wolf’s clothing is more respectable than a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Or the lesser of the evils.

      3. jrs

        Voting Republican may be the most direct way to make them lose, but voting 3rd party also helps them lose.

  5. Conelrad

    Caveat writer:

    Use of “trade boosters” and “trade supporters” unintentionally, and detrimentally, uses the frame that one side in the fast track/TPP debate is “pro-trade” and the other is “anti.” But this frame is false and is best avoided.

  6. A Nony Mouze

    Had a creepy discussion with one of my senators that may presage why the R’s are on board with a blank check to Obama. His staffer told me that he backs the 6 year window because he believes that “the next person will be a Republican” and that it will help them. In effect they see this purely as an election step.

    1. kimsarah

      This will make it that much more painful for Republicans if they don’t win the WH in 2016. The way Democrats continue to pour their support into HIllary, as she self-destructs, the GOP shouldn’t have to worry that much.

  7. kimsarah

    These Democrats and in particular Wyden should have lost all credibility a long time ago. How they have any left is amazing.

  8. kimsarah

    Not one peep of concern from these pro-fast track Democratic senators about the inability of anyone to see this agreement before the actual up and down TPP vote. No concern about not being able to alter what they don’t know is in it. I hope they are partying hard. I’m sure the corporate writers of TPP are.

  9. Waarnemer

    I feel that I have much more in common with the original tea party of Ron Paul (NOT corporatist Rand) than most of the Clinton/Blair “New Democrats”. Obama is just a Wall Street whore… far to the right of Eisenhower or Nixon, he is just a black skinned fascist whom the racist liberals love because he is black.
    We are being ruled by traitors against our constitution in all branches of government, we should consider the common ground we have with others, rather that the MSM (5 corporations) blue verses red false dichotomy. If we can agree to respect the rule of law, prosecuting the prosecutors, politicians, bankers, judges, ceo’s etc. we can begin to have a real dialogue about the future of our country rather than the immediate greed gratification which is so focussed today.

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