President Obama took the inter-Democratic party debate over trade up a notch Friday morning, when he joined a White House conference call with Labor Secretary Tom Perez and a small group of reporters as a surprise guest and mounted a vigorous, and at times testy, defense of his administration’s trade policy. Obama spoke for 31 minutes straight, and became almost the fact-checker-in-chief: pushing back on several specific points raised by Democrats about the deal, ranging from labor standards to fast-track to the secrecy of the process.
At the end of the call, Obama offered a warning: “What I am averse to is a bunch of ad hominem attacks and misinformation that stirs up the base but ultimately doesn’t serve them well. And I’m going to be pushing back very hard if I keep on hearing that stuff.”
Many of Obama’s claims, however, don’t match up to what we know about the deal so far. Others are impossible to fact-check, as the final language of the deal remains a secret to the public and even many congressional staffers.
The members of Congress who have seen the deal can’t disclose what’s in it, but their public statements reveal a deep unease about the text. This was illustrated clearly in an anecdote Obama told about Representative Sandy Levin, the ranking member of the House Ways & Means Committee. “I sat down with Sandy Levin. He gave me a list of probably 20 things that he wanted to see in the trade deal,” Obama said. “And I spent an hour walking through one by one, showing him how on 18 of the 20, we had addressed either 100 percent or 80 percent of his concerns.”
Levin’s office declined to comment on whether that was a fair characterization of the meeting. But incidentally Levin did release a statement one hour after the call, about the passage of fast track through the Ways & Means Committee. It didn’t sound like the words of a man who had a vast majority of his concerns assuaged.
“The negotiating objectives included in the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA legislation are primarily so vague or flexible that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated without strict guidelines in many areas,” Levin said. “Workers in Vietnam and Mexico have no assurance that labor laws in those countries would be brought into compliance with International Labor Organization standards. Foreign investors could challenge an American law or health regulation in an arbitration panel without clear guidelines, instead of U.S. courts with clear rules of law. Countries will be able to manipulate their currencies—harming American businesses and workers—without any clear recourse except consultations. Or take agricultural market access. The negotiating objective is simply to ‘reducing or eliminating’ duties on agricultural products. Japan’s opening offer met that objective, because they agreed to ‘reduce’ but not ‘eliminate’ agricultural tariffs on hundreds of products.”
The labor standards in the trade pact, and the extent they will be enforceable, are a huge point of contention between the White House and Democrats. If TPP adopts weak or unenforceable labor requirements, American jobs and production capacity would flow even more quickly towards other countries in the trade pact.
As Levin’s comments relay, Democrats and organized labor want the pact to force compliance with the International Labor Organization standards, which apparently won’t be the case. Past trade deals with Jordan and Cambodia adopted those standards, and were endorsed by labor groups. This would make Obama’s contention during the call that TPP would be “the most progressive trade deal in our history” pretty debatable.
Many union organizers assume, with good reason, the labor standards in TPP will fall somewhere below the ILO rules. Perez didn’t do much to assuage these fears in a recent interview with The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, where he said that Vietnam—which has essentially zero labor rights—would only have to make “significant changes” in labor laws in order to enter TPP.
Obama also strongly disputed that the bill was being fast-tracked: “there’s nothing fast about it,” he said, adding that Congress has 90 days to review the deal before it votes.
That is true—but Democrats and advocates have raised serious concerns about how hard it would be to remove TPP or any future pact from the fast track if there were concerns about the final text.
Once the current fast-track legislation is enacted, only the Senate Finance Committee or House Ways & Means Committee can derail fast track (meaning, revert to a 60-vote requirement with amendments possible) before the final vote, by negatively reporting out the implementing language of TPP. But the resolution to stop fast track generated by that committee vote would then need a full congressional vote, and that resolution would not be privileged—meaning House Speaker John Boehner or Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell could simply decline to bring it for a floor vote, thus keeping fast track in place. Both men strongly favor TPP.
Moreover, this whole process can only happen after the president signs the trade bill and sends the implementing language to Congress. Even if Congress somehow derailed fast track and amended TPP, all the signatory countries would have to agree to back out and renegotiate.
What’s especially notable about this is that, under the fast-track legislation passed in 1988, either committee could stop fast track immediately with a simple majority vote—no wider floor vote would even be needed. This could also happen before the president entered into the trade pact. In this way, as Public Citizen has noted, the TPP process is a significant a step back from NAFTA when it comes to fast-tracking.
Obama also blasted critics who call TPP secret, and said “When I keep on hearing people repeating this notion that it’s ‘secret,’ I gotta say, it’s dishonest.” He added that members of Congress have been offered 1,700 briefings on the pact and can see the text whenever they like.
But Obama also admitted that some parts that are being negotiated—and there are a lot of them—remain secret. This is also a case where Obama and some TPP critics are talking past each other; Elizabeth Warren says not that TPP is secret from her but, in an e-mail to supporters this week, said it was secret to them. The AFL-CIO’s Eric Hauser told The Nation in a statement that “the best way to regain workers’ confidence is to release the text, not scold the critics.”
During other parts of the call, Obama did some exercises in partisan identification. His message to the Democratic base in recent days has been: You know me. “My overarching priority in everything I do, since I was elected and until I am done with my last day of the presidency, is figuring out how we can create greater opportunity for the middle class and people who are working hard to get into the middle class,” he said, before reciting a litany of administration accomplishments from the stimulus act to rescuing the auto industry.
It’s a good political strategy, though one that may be hard to advance. No major environmental or labor groups have backed the deal—and many are fighting it tooth-and-nail. As David Dayen noted Friday, many of the TPP endorsements listed on the White House website from smaller-scale environmental groups aren’t endorsements at all—they are letters requesting better terms in the TPP and even in some cases offering concerns the the hoped-for terms won’t be met.
The difficulties facing the White House here were evident in Perez’s response to a question from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on this topic. Perez went on to list three progressive backers of the deal: former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (who just joined Bain Capital), Ben Cardin, and former Washington governor Christine Gregoire. With respect to those politicians, Perez was reaching pretty far into the barrel of high-profile liberals.
And perhaps the biggest obstacle to Obama’s party-identification gambit: all those Republicans boosting the deal. Also on Friday afternoon, Republicans announced that Representative Paul Ryan—who Democrats spent much of 2012 vilifying as a budget-slashing pawn of Wall Street—would give the weekly address on the topic of TPP.