May 22, 2015

May 22, 2015: Response from the White House, Shroud of Secrecy, Deep Suspicions

On April 19th I sent an email to the White House registering my displeasure with both the ‘leaked’ content of pending multilateral trade agreements and the processes by which the products of these negotiations are being presented to the Congress and the American people.  This afternoon I received a reply in which the administration is, predictably, defending its position.

Dear Joseph:
Thank you for writing.  My Administration is pursuing a trade agenda that will place our workers, farmers, manufacturers, and businesses at the center of the 21st-century global economy—one that promotes both our interests and our values.  Trade done right is a critical part of my strategy to create jobs, spur growth, and strengthen the middle class.

With 95 percent of the world’s customers living outside our borders, our ability to access new markets is vital to our economic well-being.  The export of American-made products supports millions of jobs here at home that pay up to 18 percent more than non-export-related jobs.  And, 98 percent of the more than 300,000 companies that export are small businesses.  However, even though more American businesses are exporting than ever before, most businesses still don’t export anything—leaving an incredible amount of opportunity that can be unlocked for our middle class.  To take advantage of that opportunity and level the playing field for our workers and businesses, we’re moving forward with the most ambitious trade agenda in American history, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will knock down barriers that block American made goods and services while promoting high standards in the fastest-growing region in the world, including the strongest enforceable labor and environmental provisions of any trade agreement.

To protect our workers, the trade agreement will require countries to set a minimum wage, protect the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain, and work to end child and forced labor.  To preserve the environment, it will require countries to take tangible steps to curb wildlife trafficking, crack down on illegal logging, and prevent overfishing.  That’s why conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy agree that the enforceable provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are a critical step forward for environmental protection.

Some prior trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, have not lived up to their promise.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership addresses these problems through strong enforcement mechanisms, including for the labor and environmental standards.  This means that if our trading partners, including Canada and Mexico, aren’t playing by the rules, we can hold them accountable.  The agreement also includes new rules that make sure our businesses and property owners are protected from having property taken by foreign countries, while making sure that foreign corporations can’t undermine or get around our own laws and regulations.  Because we know that unfair currency practices by some governments hurt our workers, businesses, and farmers, we are working with Congress on new tools and standards that will make it easier for us to protect American workers and firms from unfair competition.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is also America’s opportunity to lead in the Asia-Pacific.  The alternative to this agreement is to let other powers, like China, carve up the region and drive down standards through bad trade agreements.  We cannot stay on the sidelines while China and other countries write the rules of the road.  We have to seize this opportunity to help American workers and businesses compete on a level playing field in the world’s largest markets in the decades to come.

To help us secure the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we are working with Congress to enact Trade Promotion Authority, which allows Congress to put forward its priorities for negotiating trade agreements.  The new version of Trade Promotion Authority Congress is considering guarantees that future trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will have progressive, pro-worker, and pro-environment standards.  This gives us the leverage to bring home the best possible agreements for the American people.
The new Trade Promotion Authority mandates unprecedented transparency by requiring that any trade agreement be published online for 60 days before I sign it, and Congress will then have months to review, debate, and hold hearings on the details of the agreement before they vote on it.  And while we have not yet finalized the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the current agreement is available for all members of Congress to read and review, and we have conducted over 1700 regular briefings with members of Congress on the status of the negotiations and have provided full similar briefings for labor groups, environmental groups, and other interested parties.

With a highly educated workforce, an entrepreneurial culture, strong rule of law, and abundant sources of affordable, clean energy, the United States has what’s required to be the world’s manufacturing hub.  My Administration is working every day to help businesses locate, grow, and hire here so that our businesses ship goods all over the world stamped with "Made in the U.S.A." The good news is that this is already beginning to happen—over the last few years, our manufacturers have been steadily creating jobs in the U.S. for the first time since the 1990s.  Good trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will continue that trend and ensure that jobs are not outsourced, but rather are created here at home.  We will continue to push forward on these efforts because we know that when the playing field is level, American workers and businesses don’t just compete, they win.

Again, I appreciate your message.  I am confident we can support job growth at home and boost exports while promoting our values and raising standards around the globe.

Barack Obama

While the prospects of trade agreements that benefit all parties are indeed a noble goal worthy of the support of all, such outcomes are difficult to achieve.  In principle there is nothing wrong with the goals or efforts to achieve these goals.  But the president, I fear, is being a bit disingenuous when he maintains that ‘fast track’ authority mandates ‘unprecedented transparency’, for the process has been anything but transparent.  Additionally citing the ‘1700 briefings’ of members of congress does not include the fact that members are brought into a room, alone, and given not only time limits on when they can read, but are presented with only select documentations.  For instance, documents concerning the shifting positions of other parties to the agreements are not part of the portfolio.  Additionally, they are not allowed to bring staff, take notes, nor speak with the press concerning the content of the agreements.  Several Senators, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have loudly complained about the process, the secrecy and the difficulty in getting timely information that envelope this process.  The shroud of secrecy that has descended upon these proceedings only raises the suspicion that something untoward is in the works. 

What we have ‘learned’ about the content of these agreements have come through ‘leaks’ to select spokesman and from what critics have been able to glean from the proceedings.  It still begs the question: if these agreements are such a boon to America, and such a good deal for the manufacturing sector and the middle class, why then have the details not been forthcoming?  Why has such a shroud of secrecy been cast over the proceedings?  Lastly, why is it necessary to ‘fast-track’ these agreements?  The history, of which this administration is most assuredly aware, is that these kinds of agreements have proven bitter pills for Americans to swallow.  If the current agreements under discussion do in fact address the lingering rancor that previous trade agreements have engendered why then isn’t this administration releasing the draft agreements and speaking openly and honestly with the American people about the benefits contained therein?  Instead the Administration maintains a studied silence.

Perhaps this explains why it has taken nearly six weeks to send a pro forma response to a concerned citizen who harbors deep suspicions that no good will come of this.   I hope I am wrong; but I fear I am not.

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