Congress and the Nation's Secret Trade Deals
When U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski asked to see a trade agreement that's the subject of debate in Congress, he was taken three floors below ground level in the Capitol Visitors Center to a guarded room where he had to give up his cellphone, sign a confidentiality agreement not to reveal details of what he was about to see and was told the document was classified.
"You're not even allowed to take any notes with you after you leave the room," Lipinski, D-3rd, said. "And the fact is that many aspects of the trade agreement aren't finished. It's still being negotiated. And there are references to addendums in the documents that you are allowed to see, but those addendums, which contain significant information, are not available for inspections by Congress."
The trade agreement in question is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is being hailed by the Obama administration as one of the most significant trade pacts in this country's history. It says the agreement will boost manufacturing, increase employment and solidify the United States' place as the center of world commerce.
You've probably heard all of that before. In 1994, when the U.S. entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, it was touted as spurring economic growth through competition in domestic markets and promoting investment, both foreign and domestic.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, from what I've read, would dwarf NAFTA. It involves Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan, as well as the United States. South Korea and Taiwan are also involved as negotiations continue.
The president is so anxious to get this deal done that he has asked Congress to fast-track his authority to make such deals — meaning that once the negotiations are complete, the Senate and the House would be given 90 days to vote the TPP up or down but wouldn't be able to amend or change anything.
Lipinski is skeptical and claims that NAFTA, instead of improving the economy, has cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs. Illinois alone has lost roughly 300,000 manufacturing jobs, he contends.
When the Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2012, Lipinski recalls, the Obama administration promised that it would produce 70,000 new jobs. But since it was implemented there has been a loss of 60,000 American jobs and a "25 percent increase in the manufactured-goods trade deficit," he said.
Lipinski emphasizes that he's not opposed to free trade, just opposed to bad trade deals.
As for the Obama administration, it's not only touting the economic benefits of this mega-trade deal, but the fact that China is not one of the partners. By cutting China out of the TPP, the U.S. would become the major player in one of the fastest-emerging economic markets in the world.
If the U.S. doesn't make this deal, China could step in and dominate Pacific Rim commerce for decades to come.
There are great arguments to be made pro and con when it comes to this deal, as there always are on trade agreements. People will tell you they can predict the future impact of such pacts but later will explain that the numbers changed because of a world economic recession or changes in oil prices or unforeseen unrest in foreign countries.
And that's all true. Did NAFTA cause the decline in U.S. manufacturing or was it already happening due to the rise of Japan as an economic power and the emergence of China with its cheap supply of labor and unregulated commercial environment?
It's possible that without NAFTA, the manufacturing losses in the U.S. might have been greater.
I'm pretty confident in saying that many Americans have never heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or if they have, only in passing.
The fact that congressmen are complaining about the secrecy of the deal (Lipinski isn't the only one) indicates that even motivated individuals would have a difficult time discovering the details.
My guess is that if ordinary Americans were allowed to vote on any free trade deal they would be opposed. There's a gut feeling that such agreements drive down the wages of working folks who are forced to compete with countries where the average annual income is far less than it is here. And there's a perception, based in fact, that our trading partners often cheat.
Enforcement of such trade agreement is lax, and unlike companies in the United States, industries in foreign countries don't have to abide by the strict environmental and public health laws we demand in America.
As a result, there's a drumbeat by the Wall Street barons and corporate titans in this country that Americans ought to be willing to work for less money, that safety regulations ought to be relaxed and environmental hazards ignored.
The really interesting thing about these sorts of debates is that you find people who would normally criticize Obama supporting him and those who normally support him questioning his iron-fisted, do-what-I-say mentality.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-2nd, for example, who's considered a liberal on most issues, has made statements in opposition to the president's proposal to fast-track trade agreements.
In an email responding to my request for her position, Kelly wrote: "To be clear, I am not against trade. However, many of my constituents have expressed concerns about transparency of the process for negotiating this agreement. I, too, have my own reservations about this process. It's important for the families I represent to know that the trade deals that are being discussed aren't being negotiated in a way that will burn them.
"It's also important to the workers who've made our nation so great to know that we will no longer tolerate closed-door discussions that lead to years of policies that ship more American manufacturing jobs overseas. And it's important to workers in my district, my state and around the world to know that we won't tolerate and will crack down on trade cheaters who manipulate their currency to boost their exports and undercut U.S. manufacturers. That's my trade philosophy and my approach to this and future trade deals."
Lipinski said the Obama administration is putting enormous pressure on members of Congress to approve the fast-tracking of trade agreements and expressed fear that the American people are simply not aware of the controversy.
Here in Illinois, public attention has been riveted on the economic catastrophes facing Chicago and the state. The attention span of most Americans is pretty short these days, and things like trade agreements are going to have a difficult time competing with the Blackhawks, Sox, Cubs, reality TV shows, Taylor Swift and the latest cat video on YouTube.
But when members of Congress express concern about the secrecy surrounding this deal, I thought you ought to spend a minute or two thinking about Washington, D.C.
The Obama administration contends that secrecy is necessary because if certain details of our negotiations with, say Japan, got back to say, South Korea, the entire trade deal could collapse.
There are also reports that some of the trade requirements would cause public protests in foreign countries because they might violate certain trade laws or have significant political ramifications abroad.
Hey, there are always many reasons to keep things secret. The only really good argument against that is that, you know, in a democracy we believe the people are the government.
In foreign policy, homeland security and the right to a fair and speedy trial, we've strayed a long way from what our Founding Fathers believed were the essential rights of citizens in a free country.
I have always opposed secret government deals, whether they are done by school boards, village boards or the legislature. I see no reason to alter my views when it comes to trade agreements with foreign countries.
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