References to trade agreements were some of the very few passages during President Obama’s State of the Union speech late last month that moved Republicans to stand and applaud along with Obama’s Democratic Party allies.
And when Obama talks about trade bills pending in Congress, the biggest is a plan to give the President fast-track authority to move forward with the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, America’s newest putative free trade agreement.
Because of its location, this deal would affect California more than any other part of the nation. So far, there has been no movement toward opening up the negotiations to public scrutiny, which can only lead to speculation about what an eventual treaty might contain.
The Tea Party, for example, told its members in an email the other day that “Obama is secretly planning to ram through Congress one of the most ambitious free trade agreements ever negotiated…the launch pad for the ‘New World Order.’” Obama, the ultra-conservative organization warned, “fully intends to surrender U.S. sovereignty under this agreement.”
As often happens with outraged political rhetoric, there is a grain of truth behind some of the claims. In this case, leaked versions of the Trans-Pacific pact that may emerge from more than two-dozen negotiating sessions held in the last few years indicate it will set up the same kind of tribunal that exists under NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Such tribunals, as NAFTA’s history demonstrates, do tend to interfere with American sovereignty, sometimes allowing international judicial panels to overrule U.S. and state laws.
The most famous such case came while California in the late 1990s sought to rid gasoline here of the additive MTBE, whichfeatured noxious odors and taste, along with alleged cancer risks. MTBE leached into some drinking water as it leaked from rusty storage tanks and the engines of small boats into aquifers and reservoirs.
But the state’s MTBE ban, imposed by then-Gov. Gray Davis, threatened the profits of the Canadian Methanex Corp., which filed a $970 million claim for lost sales in a NAFTA tribunal, circumventing American courts. Methanex eventually lost its case for health reasons, but the point was made: In some cases, the U.S. Supreme Court may no longer be so supreme, especially when corporations manage to bypass it.
Another key NAFTA tribunal ruling went against U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling requirements because they could impede free trade.
That’s a major loss of sovereignty, one which could be widened under expected provisions of the Trans-Pacific agreement. Other countries that have already joined the pact and agreed to such terms include Brunei, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. If the U.S. joins, the treaty will likely expand further to Canada, Japan, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam, too.
But no one outside the Obama administration and a few foreign negotiators knows what’s in the latest draft version of this agreement. If Congress gives Obama the fast-track authority he seeks and which most of Congress applauded during his speech, it’s possible no one will be able to prevent offshoring of millions of jobs (predicted by consumer advocate Ralph Nader) and rolling back banking reforms, safe food laws, Internet freedom and environmental safeguards.
That’s because fast-track authority prevents Congress from holding full-scale hearings or amending the treaty when it comes up for action there. There would be just one up-or-down vote, with no changes allowed on anything from copyright infringement provisions to human rights.
So going fast could lead not just to reduced American authority over our own affairs but to corporate lobbyists sneaking in self-serving elements that could not be exposed via Congressional hearings. That’s why any fast-tracking bill and any consideration of this agreement before it’s adopted should include mandatory publication of the entire agreement, so Americans are not forced to buy the proverbial pig in a poke.
This is the only way Americans can know what they’d get if this treaty ever becomes effective, and just what they’d lose.