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Why Democrats are reluctant to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Rep. Sander Levin expressed concern Thursday over secrecy and insufficient worker protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Sander Levin, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and Jeffrey Sachs (not pictured), international economist and Columbia University professor, speak at the St. Regis Hotel on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is not impressed by the visit President Obama plans to make Friday to the Oregon headquarters of Nike to argue for a trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

“If you lose your job, the fact that you can buy less expensive shoes doesn’t help much,” Representative Levin said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Thursday. Nike has operations in Vietnam, one of the nations included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. 

Levin is a leader in opposing TPP, which covers 40 percent of the world’s commerce, citing secrecy surrounding the deal and insufficient worker protections, among other issues. 

To gain leverage over TPP, he and other Democrats are blocking passage of trade promotion authority (TPA). That legislation would allow the president to submit trade deals like TPP to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote. TPA is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate next week.

“Until it is clear where this is going and problems are being solved in TPP that remain, it is our judgment of so many of us that it is really, really important not to give up our leverage.” Levin said. 

Both House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Ways and Means chair Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin have said Democratic votes will be needed to pass TPA in the House, where action on the measure is not expected until after a Memorial Day recess. 

“It’s a small fraction at this point of House Democrats” who would vote to support TPA, Levin said.

A key area motivating Levin’s objections is what he claims is a lack of adequate protection for workers harmed by trade. “We need to have worker rights and environmental provisions... It is important to have not only the language, but the reality.” For example, Levin cited meeting a woman in Vietnam who was jailed for more than four years for trying to form a union.

One of Democrats’ key objections to the Asia trade deal is the level of secrecy surrounding details of the TPP. “They classified language that should not be classified,” Levin said.

Columbia University economist and development expert Jeffrey Sachs, who also spoke at the breakfast, called the secrecy “an extremely serious challenge to our democratic practices.”

Among the controversial provisions of TPP that are publicly known is investor-state dispute settlement. This is a process by which multinational corporations can sue the governments of countries in which they invest for violating their property rights. 

Levin said some recent corporate uses of ISDS were “really worrisome.” He added, “Countries don’t want to give away their jurisdiction to an arbitration panel.”

The longtime Ways and Means member also pushed back against the Obama administration’s claim that if the United States did not conclude a deal on TPP, China would be empowered to set more of the rules governing trade. “To simply say that because of China we need to pass a defective TPP misses the importance of the economic issues and I think overstates the security aspects.”

Trade pacts “are not rightly labeled as trade agreements, though we call them trade agreements. They are international business agreements,” Professor Sachs said. “The ramifications of these agreements go well beyond trade.” They typically affect trade access issues like tariffs, foreign investment dispute settlement, and regulatory matters like drug pricing and patent rights.

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