Senate Finance Committee leaders Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ron Wyden are expected to introduce a “fast-track” trade promotion authority bill as early as this week that would give the president authority to negotiate the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 labor union members rallied on Capitol Hill to call on Democrats to oppose “fast-track” authority. We speak with two people closely following the proposed legislation: Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, and Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the pending vote in Congress on the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a global trade deal currently being negotiated between the United States and 11 Latin American and Asian countries. Senate Finance Committee leaders Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ron Wyden are expected to introduce a fast-track trade promotion authority bill as early as this week that would give the president authority to negotiate the TPP trade deal and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. The bill would need 60 votes to pass the full Senate. Republicans control 54 votes, and almost all are expected to vote for the measure.
On Wednesday, more than a thousand labor union members rallied outside the US Capitol to call on Democrats to oppose fast-track authority. They were joined by several members of Congress. This is Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What this is about is not just trade. It is about whether this United States Congress begins to work for the middle class and working families of this country or whether it is totally owned by billionaires and their lobbyists.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. We’ll let you know if he actually officially announces that he’s running for president.
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For more on the brewing battle in Congress over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and fast-track authority in Congress, we’re joined by two guests. Lori Wallach is with us, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. And Congressmember Alan Grayson is with us, a Democrat from Florida.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lori Wallach, let’s just begin with you. We have been following the whole issue of both fast track and TPP, but for those who are not familiar with it – perhaps that’s why bills like this go the way they go – explain briefly why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so significant.
LORI WALLACH: The Trans-Pacific Partnership would make it easier for corporations to offshore our jobs. It’s based on the NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Korea Free Trade Agreement. It has the same provisions that give companies who offshore, who relocate their investments, special privileges and protections that make it cheaper and safer to move our jobs to low-wage countries. And TPP includes a lot of low-wage countries, which means our wages will get pushed down, when Americans are made to compete, for instance, with workers in Vietnam who are making less than 60 cents an hour.
In addition, TPP would open to 9,000 more corporations the right to drag the US government into investor-state corporate tribunals. Those are the extrajudicial tribunals where panels of three corporate attorneys would be empowered to rule on a claim brought directly against the US government by a foreign corporation claiming they should get compensation from our tax dollars for any domestic law they think violates their rights under the agreement, and they should get paid for their lost future profits for having to meet our laws.
In addition, provisions of the TPP – because most of it’s not about trade; 29 chapters, only five about trade – chapters would undermine Internet freedom. The copyright chapter has pieces of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, in it. The patent chapter would increase medicine prices. It gives big pharmaceutical companies extra monopolies. The financial services chapter would roll back financial regulation. The procurement chapter would undermine “Buy America,” “Buy Local” preferences. Basically – the services chapter would undermine energy regulation and undermine the policies that we need to combat the climate crisis. Basically, the entire agenda that is necessary for a decent life and livelihood and health of America, and the people in the 11 other countries, is being rolled back in the name of a trade agreement that really is just a corporate Trojan horse tool negotiated for six years in secrecy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Congressman Alan Grayson, could you explain your opposition to fast-track authority and what you’re calling on your colleagues in Congress to do?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I agree with everything that Lori just said, but I think there’s also a bigger picture to consider. Our free trade, our so-called free trade, policies have been a disaster for the United States since NAFTA was enacted. Before NAFTA was enacted and went into effect 20 years ago, we never had any year in our history when we had a trade deficit of $135 billion or more. Every single year since then, for 20 years in a row, our trade deficit has been over $135 billion. Our last 14 trade deficits have been the 14 largest trade deficits not only in our history, but in the history of the entire world. And the result of that is that we’ve gone from $2 trillion in surplus with our trade to $11 trillion in debt. And we’ve lost five million manufacturing jobs and roughly 15 million other jobs in the last 20 years. So we’ve lost twice: We’ve lost the jobs, and we’ve also gone deeper and deeper into debt. So what’s happening is not that we’re buying goods and services from foreigners and they’re buying an equal amount of goods and services from us – that’s the way free trade is supposed to work. What’s actually happening is that we’re buying our goods and services from foreigners, and they are taking the money that we give to them for that and buying our assets.
That has all sorts of consequences for our economy. First we lose those jobs. Secondly, it makes American income and wealth more and more unequal. The reason why we have the fourth most unequal distribution of wealth in the world is because of fake trade. The reason why we have a bizarre, at this point unprecedented, quantitative easing policy, where the government uses the cash in our pockets to buy up assets and drive those asset prices up further and further, is because of fake trade. The reason why we have a federal deficit is because we have a trade deficit. And what happens is, the TPP, fast track, the Transatlantic version of TPP, these dramatically increase the amount of countries with whom we have this relationship – they quadruple them – and they put us on a fast track to hell, where America is nothing but cheap labor and debt slavery.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Obama speaking in February after he began the major push for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is bipartisan legislation that would protect American workers and promote American businesses, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are fair. It would level the playing field for American workers. It would hold all countries to the same high labor and environmental standards to which we hold ourselves.
Now, I’m the first to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype. And that’s why we’ve successfully gone after countries that break the rules at our workers’ expense. But that doesn’t mean we should close ourselves off from new opportunities and sit on the sidelines while other countries write our future for us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Obama speaking in February. President Obama is, obviously, president of the United States, leading Democrat. Congressman Grayson, he represents your party, as well. Why the difference? Who are the blocs now that are united? We’re not just talking it’s Democrats here and Republicans here. What set of Republicans and Democrats agree on this?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, it’s a mystery to me. You know, I was in the room when the president gave that statement and made that speech. He gave a 45-minute speech. On those three sentences, that was the only time during that entire speech when the Republicans rose up and applauded him and the Democrats did not. And I think that’s very revealing. There are very, very few Democratic votes in the House of Representatives, because we represent ordinary working people. The groups that are lobbying the hardest for this are the multinational corporations and their K Street lobbyists. They’re the ones who desperately want to see this passed, for the reasons that Lori Wallach just mentioned and enumerated. Ordinary Democrats represent constituencies who have been hurt hard, really hurt very hard, by the loss of those five million manufacturing jobs and 15 million other jobs. Go to any Democratic district in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. And the fact is that there is very little support, if any significant support, within the Democratic House Caucus for fast track or for TPP. We do have a few corporate Democrats. Frankly, we do have a couple of sell-out Democrats, who have sold out to the corporate lobbyists. But the bulk of the Democratic Party well understands, along with the labor movement and ordinary people, that these policies have been disastrous for us. And it is a lie to say that they will improve the economy. In fact, they will continue the downward trend of the economy, until foreigners own everything.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Lori Wallach, I want to ask you about a comment that you made about President Obama’s shift on this, since he voted in 2005 against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and subsequently explained his decision in the Chicago Tribune, what you referred to – his op-ed, that is – as his “Hamlet essay.” Could you say why you called it that and what you think accounts for this transition of his on free trade?
LORI WALLACH: Well, I called it his Hamlet essay because it was on the one hand, on the other hand, to be or not to be. And he basically voted against the Central American NAFTA expansion, CAFTA, Central America Free Trade Agreement, probably mainly for political reasons. He would have been one of the very few Democrats who was for it. But the op-ed that he wrote in the Chicago Tribune basically laid out how much he wanted to be for the agreement. And I’m not sure it’s so much a transition as he went from not feeling very strongly about these issues, but being surrounded by a lot of advisers who thought it was a great idea – NAFTA, CAFTA – the sort of few last unrequited NAFTA lovers in the Democratic Party. And unfortunately, those are precisely the people he brought in, as president, to be his international economic advisers. So, the Larry Summers, Mike Froman, who is the current trade ambassador, these guys, some of them, like Froman, a Wall Street revolving-door guy, some of them authors of NAFTA, so maybe a little cognitive dissonance about what it did – those guys have marinated him in NAFTA juice, and it’s come, basically, to seep into his pores. And he now has become a guy who basically, but for maybe the Democratic Congress saving him – the Democrats in Congress – would basically ruin his own legacy by passing a trade agreement that would undermine everything he’s achieved and everything he says he stands for. The good news, as Congressman Grayson said, is that there are only a handful of Democrats who are left who are either undecided or prepared to support fast track.
And so, for folks across the country, this is a vote that could happen by the end of April. We’re talking quick. Every day that this debate gets aired, more and more people come out against. So, every person should find out where their member in the House of Representatives stands on fast track, and just ask them directly. Call the office over the weekend, your member of Congress’s home. Look in the blue pages. Get the local address. Just stop by. A lot of them have office hours. And just ask, “Will you commit to me, your constituent, that you’re going to hold onto your constitutional trade powers, not vote for fast track, which throws that away – it’s a process that literally is a delegation of Congress’s authority to stand up for us – and make sure we don’t see more jobs offshored with trade agreements?” That is what we all have to do, and we have to do it now.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Lori, can you talk about the investment chapter of TPP, that was leaked by WikiLeaks, which highlights the intent of US-led negotiators to create a tribunal where corporations can sue governments if their laws interfere with a company’s claimed future profits?
LORI WALLACH: So, this is the chapter that both creates the incentives that basically promote countries to offshore. Ironically, the Cato Institute is against this chapter because, from their perspective, it’s an unfair market distortion giving a subsidy in favor of offshoring. They have no problem with offshoring; they just think the market should decide, we shouldn’t use our trade agreements to promote job offshoring. So, the flipside of that is, and one of the special privileges the corporations would get is, they get elevated literally to nationhood. They get the same status as a nation state to privately enforce the terms of a public treaty. It’s called investor-state dispute resolution. And if you want to learn a lot about it, go to www.isdscorporateattacks.org, isdscorporateattacks.org. It’s a new website that has all of these cases where corporations are empowered to drag a sovereign government to a tribunal of three private-sector trade attorneys, who rotate between being the attorneys for the corporations suing the governments and being the “judges.” No conflict-of-interest rules. And these three private corporate attorneys can order a government to pay our tax dollars, in unlimited amounts, to a foreign corporation because they think that our domestic environmental, land-use, zoning, health, labor laws violate their new corporate rights in an agreement like TPP.
And the thing is, we’ve got a passel of those kind of agreements already. Folks remember, under NAFTA, we’ve had some horrible cases. Four hundred million dollars has already been paid out to corporations, even under NAFTA, where the system is narrower than what’s proposed for TPP. But there are very few companies from the countries we’ve had the past agreements with, because it’s mainly been developing countries. So there are 9,000 existing companies in all 50 agreements we have with this system. Just with TPP alone, we have another 9,000, mainly companies from Japan, so countries with – companies with sophistication and wherewithal. Plus, if we did the European agreement, we’d quadruple our liability, so that it’s only a matter of time before our laws get sacked. Warning to everyone: Go look at the Sierra Club website. Recent case like this under NAFTA called the Bilcon case, Sierra Club has a great exposé on it. The actual one of the tribunalists, one of the corporate lawyers, steps back and says, “If we keep doing things like this – I have to break with the rest of you. If we keep doing this, this investor-state system is going to chill all our environmental laws.” That’s what one of the tribunalists said.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, do you have to rely on WikiLeaks to get information about what’s actually in the TPP agreement?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, one of the sad and disturbing elements of this whole process has been the artificial secrecy that’s been imposed by the administration and by the trade representative on these dealings. I can’t think of any other occasion, when I’ve served in Congress, when I’ve seen the element of deception loom so large here. The public is better informed of Iraqi attacks on ISIS, which you’d think would be classified, than it is informed on a trade deal that’s going to determine our economic future for the next 20 years. What’s happened is that, right at the beginning, the trade representative took the absurd position that everything that was being negotiated was classified, even though it was directly in the hands of the foreign governments with whom he was negotiating. Remember, normally, we have a classified system to keep information away from our enemies, or at least other governments. In this case, it was the other governments that had the information, and it was Congress and the American people who were being denied the information. And they took that position for five years, even though 100 members of Congress wrote a letter to the trade representative saying, “Cut this out.”
Now, I’m the first member of Congress to actually see any part of the TPP, even though 600 corporate lobbyists are, quote, “advisers” to the trade representative and they get to see everything. And I insisted they take that information to my office, and in return they told me I couldn’t take it with me, I couldn’t take it home, I couldn’t make notes on it, I couldn’t have my staff present. And here’s the kicker: They didn’t want me to discuss it with the media, the public or even other members of Congress. So it’s a farce. And it’s meant specifically to keep the information away from the American people, because if the American people knew what was going on, they’d recognize that it’s a punch to the face of the middle class in America.