Opponents Line Up for Pacific Trade Pact

Negotiators wrapped up a framework for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the trade deal may face substantial opposition in Congress in an election year from a loose coalition of labor, environmentalists and disgruntled industry. (Communication Workers Union)

Negotiators wrapped up a framework for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the trade deal may face substantial opposition in Congress in an election year from a loose coalition of labor, environmentalists and disgruntled industry. (Communication Workers Union)


Negotiators have agreed on the framework of a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which if approved could give President Obama a second major international achievement following the Iranian nuclear deal.

Obama touted the trade pact as a policy tool to strengthen U.S. influence in the high-growth Asia Pacific region, as well as a way to box in the rising economic ambitions of China. The TPP was a central element in Obama's pivot to the Pacific strategy, which has continually been interrupted by turmoil in the Middle East, Russian moves against Ukraine and the rise of ISIS.

Even though a GOP-led Congress gave Obama so-called fast track authority to negotiate the TPP and limit Congress to an up or down vote, the treaty's prospects appear uncertain. While there is a lot for various groups to like in the trade treaty, strong objections persist from labor, environmental and industry groups. Because the vote on TPP won't occur until next spring, opponents will have ample time to make their case.

The Washington Post provided a sampler of discontent. U.S. automakers, it reported, complain the TPP doesn't prevent currency manipulation by Japan that suppresses its car prices in the American market. Drug manufacturers wanted intellectual property protection for their biologic medicines to last for 12 years, but TPP only extends protection for eight years.

Environmentalists worry about investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, which they say could "empower big polluters to challenge climate and environmental safeguards in private trade courts." On the flip side of that coin, tobacco companies are upset they are apparently excluded from the TPP settlement provisions, a similar form of which they used successfully to block anti-smoking rules in Australia.

The most fervent opposition to the trade deal comes from organized labor, which says prior trade deals have cost American jobs. Labor officials, who opposed fast-track negotiating authority, complain that TPP negotiators made "problematic concessions" to gain approval of the treaty.

The previous high-profile vote on fast track authority may or may not prove a reliable guide to how the up-or-down vote on the treaty will look. The shakeup in House GOP leadership, which could produce a rocky road in the next six weeks on major policy issues, could have undetermined impacts on the political alignment for the trade deal. Fast track authority prevents the Senate from filibustering the trade deal, which could force senators running for re-election against formidable opposition to pause on how they vote.

Glass-half-full observers say a potential defeat of the treaty in Congress could actually strengthen Obama's hand at the negotiating table, winning concessions he failed to get in the just concluded negotiations.

The lineup of issues this year in Congress, amid a still swirling presidential primary in both political parties, probably means the TPP won't attract much media attention. That's a plus for treaty detractors who can work in the shadows.

That could obscure a principled debate on key TPP provisions, such as ISDS. A separate Washington Post analysis offers useful background about prior investment treaties with settlement provisions similar to the one in the TPP. It notes, for example, that ISDS procedures allow corporations to sue governments in international courts, but governments aren't allowed to sue corporations, which some criticize as "one-way rights"  and a threat to the legal and regulatory sovereignty of nations.

Corporations have prevailed in some filings, though none have been upheld against the United States, but that political defense may not be enough to fend off arguments from Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. Labor officials say this will lead to increased "nationality shopping," with pressure on countries to weaken regulations to hold onto or recruit job-producing industry.

Another factor in the ISDS debate will be the sheer number of international investment treaties (3,200 at last count) with varying standards and rules that tend to favor corporations. 

Tags:    Trans-Pacific Partnership, fast track authority, ISDS, trade deal opposition, President Obama, second international achievement, nationality shopping, free trade, CFM Federal Affairs