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.