The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was never going to be an easy lift.
The United States has been negotiating four years with 11 other nations on the most ambitious trade agreement in history.
Although the Obama administration touts TPP as a “strong agreement that addresses the issues that U.S. businesses and workers are facing in the 21st century,” it is complex and controversial.
Among the biggest disputes concerns the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the talks, where even most members of Congress and congressional staffers have been barred from examining drafts of the agreement.
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TPP has been blasted as a giveaway to Hollywood, seeking to extend America’s more restrictive copyright laws to the Pacific Rim and codify rules that failed to pass Congress.
Foreign-policy experts have panned it as more about isolating China and reassuring allies than truly opening new markets.
Also, the nation has yet to shake off potentially lasting damage of the Great Recession. Many Americans remain mired in a long slump that leaves them mistrustful of yet more globalization.
But the biggest blow yet came last month when WikiLeaks published the first chapter of the August draft of TPP.
The agreement “would trample over individual rights and free expression,” according to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
In fact, the chapter, dealing with intellectual property, is 96 pages long, highly technical and heavily footnoted. It is only a draft and one chapter out of 29.
Still, the leak, combined with secrecy in the negotiations, has given ammunition to the charge that the real goal of TPP is protecting and extending special privileges for giant corporations.
For example, the consumer-watchdog group Public Citizen says TPP would hurt patients here and overseas by increasing the term of patents held by big pharmaceutical companies and heading off less expensive generic drugs.
The chapter makes critics worry that TPP would enshrine corporate power over technology, software and the Internet, trumping U.S. law. Or it would allow a runaround of what they see as draconian intellectual property-protection proposals such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, which has failed to pass the House.
We also know that the U.S. Trade Representative is using 700 “cleared advisers,” most from big corporations and powerful industry groups, that have had total access to the negotiations and the draft agreements.
As a result, opposition has gained traction.
More than half the members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed letters or otherwise stated that they oppose giving President Obama so-called fast-track authority for TPP. This requires an up-or-down vote in Congress and forbids amendments.
Opposition is bipartisan, a rarity in our polarized times.
In addition, the leaked chapter shows some other nations pushing back against what they see as American heavy-handedness in intellectual property and patents.
Even in Washington state, a place whose leaders never met a trade deal they didn’t like, activists set up a spotlight on a downtown Seattle building warning of extrajudicial “corporate tribunals” as a result of TPP.
Small anti-TPP protests attended Obama’s West Coast fundraising swing, as well as the latest negotiations for the agreement last month in Salt Lake City. But nothing has come close to the Nov. 30, 1999, Battle in Seattle that met the World Trade Organization ministerial conference.
What is probably the more prevalent view here was summed up when Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, helped form a bipartisan pro-TPP caucus in the House earlier in the fall.
Noting that trade with TPP countries already supports hundreds of thousands of jobs here, Reichert wrote in a prepared statement that “a high-standard, comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership holds significant promise for Washington businesses, farmers and workers.”
The first part of Reichert’s statement is indisputable. The second may be true, as well, even if Boeing, which is responsible for so much of Washington’s outsize trade footprint, pulls back here in the future.
The trouble is, we don’t know. Lack of transparency is TPP’s biggest enemy.
Ensuring robust protection for intellectual property is an essential part of expanded trade, not least for Microsoft and other companies that are the backbone of the Puget Sound region’s software cluster.
But the devil is in the details, because big companies have been using patents as a sledgehammer to protect profits, perpetuate monopolies and tamp down competition. This has arguably held back growth and hurt consumers.
One doesn’t have to accept the most extreme criticisms of TPP to be concerned.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative is one of the worst examples of a revolving door, where officials move between the public and private sectors. It is a trade regulator, but also a trade promoter. Multinational corporations exercise vast influence on its policies.
Trade expert Clyde Prestowitz noted: “While there is nothing wrong in principle with industry-government cooperation and collaboration, the present structure creates an imbalance of information and influence that favors a few industries while disadvantaging the general public.”
For all of the rhetoric of the trade rep and Obama about TPP creating and preserving American jobs, we have little evidence that this would be the outcome. TPP doesn’t appear to address some of the worst problems that maintain the job-killing trade deficit: Currency manipulation, requirement of tech transfer and investment as a condition of market entry, and indirect export subsidies.
Fast-track authority is an artifact going back to the Nixon years. It was arguably misused to give influential corporations unfair advantage in the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
TPP doesn’t deserve fast track. This far-reaching agreement needs to be vetted by our elected representatives to ensure balance between big corporations and consumers, the economic interests of a few and the public interest.
The alternative is for Obama to be more transparent and start selling TPP to the public. With the administration overwhelmed by the teething pains of the Affordable Care Act, that seems unlikely.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com