Bartering from the shadows: Why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad news

President Obama takes great pride in referring to his administration as “the most transparent administration in history.” Long gone are the days when governments could easily keep secrets from their people. Well aware of what a post-WikiLeaks world entails, President Obama hopes to avoid the hullabaloo surrounding leaks (and the draconian manner in which his administration deals with whistleblowers) by being open about the dealings of his government.

Or so he would have us believe. For the reality is, from the failures of the military’s drone program to the frightening reach of the NSA’s surveillance policies, even “the most transparent administration in history” has a lot to hide. Nowhere is this more evident than in the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade agreement nearly a decade in the making. As Robert Reich notes, the deal is massive in scope, “representing 792 million people and accounting for 40 percent of the world economy.” The details of the TPP have been negotiated behind closed doors, with the few non-government parties allowed a seat at the table being the corporations who stand to benefit the most from the deal. What little the public does know about the deal comes from leaked documents.

Even members of Congress are being kept in the dark about the deal, as evidenced by the fiasco faced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) when a member of his staff was denied access to the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the executive agency responsible for advising the President on trade. President Obama has frequently said that the trade agreement’s critics are more than welcome to walk over to the USTR and read the text of the agreement; while that’s technically true if you limit “critics” to “critics who also happen to be members of Congress,” it’s incredibly misleading. As Mike Masnick of TechDirt writes:

Yes, members of Congress are allowed to walk over to the USTR and see a copy of the latest text. But they’re not allowed to take any notes, make any copies or bring any of their staff members. In other words, they can only read the document and keep what they remember in their heads. And they can’t have their staff members — the folks who often really understand the details — there to explain what’s really going on.

So although regulating foreign commerce is a responsibility delegated to the legislative branch by the Constitution, members of Congress are being kept in the shadows about what this trade deal will entail.

By their own admission, proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are hiding the details of this deal from Congress because, as Elizabeth Warren has been told, “if the American people saw what was in it, they would be opposed to it.” The American corporate sector, on the other hand, is firmly in favor of the deal and has been granted constant, unfiltered access to its details. As Senator Wyden noted, “Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations – like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America – are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement.”

To the extent that labor interests have been included in conversations surrounding the deal, they have been (rightly) concerned at what they have heard. Last month, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka testified at a Senate Finance Committee hearing that he was told by the USTR that, despite President Obama’s claims that the TPP would include tough labor standards and enforcement procedures, “murdering a trade unionist doesn’t violate these standards…perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements.”

While union members aren’t killed on a regular basis in the United States, they are in other countries. As Trumka further noted in his testimony, 105 labor organizers have been killed and another 1,300 have been threatened with death in Colombia since the Obama administration signed a trade deal with the country in 2011.

This deference to economic elites at the expense of the public interest is a recurring theme in the history of post-World War Two American trade policy. But the TPP threatens to take this corporatism to the next level, with measures designed to protect the intellectual property of major corporations (such as film studios, software companies, and pharmaceutical corporations) by restricting fair use, extending copyright terms and expanding penalties for file-sharers and whistleblowers. Although the struggle for stricter intellectual property guidelines may seem reasonable in theory, in practice it results in atrocities such as “Big Pharma’s African Genocide” — a period of six years during which ten million sub-Saharan Africans died because, as Andrew O’Hehir outlined in Salon, “the drug companies decided that protecting their bottom-line profits was more important than saving lives, and because there was no moral force with the global power to stop them.”

Perhaps the most insidious component of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (of which we are currently aware) can be found in the recently leaked Investment Chapter. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision of the chapter calls for the creation of special courts in which corporations can sue nations “if they believe to be losing profit or even have a lower expectation of profit” as a result of legislation enacted by that nation. In other words, the TPP takes corporate personhood to a whole new level, placing private interests above, not on par with, the public good. If a country takes steps to preserve the environment or protect the health of its citizens, it could potentially face harsh legal and economic consequences. This is a gross violation of national sovereignty, and a clear indication of where the negotiators’ interests lie.

Another such indication that the public wouldn’t support the TPP if we knew what was in it comes from the Congressional battle to grant President Obama trade promotion authority, often referred to as “fast-track” authority. This prevents Congress from adding amendments to the version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership presented to them by the President. Congressional Republicans have almost unanimously lined up in support of granting Mr. Obama fast-track authority, while Democrats remain divided. That Republicans have tabled their unflinching anti-Obama animus in order to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership without any changes should tell you all you need to know about the implications of the agreement.

This deal isn’t about liberalizing trade. This deal doesn’t seek to benefit the hundreds of millions of people it affects. This deal is motivated by the same goal that has motivated American economic policy for the last four decades: the consolidation of the world’s wealth into the hands of an ever-shrinking minority. The secrecy with which this deal is being negotiated should not come as a surprise — the Trans-Pacific Partnership represents an assault on democracy the likes of which have never been seen.

Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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