Politics & Policy

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Deserves a Hearing

(Gordon Tipene/Dreamstime)

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) isn’t a trade agreement: It’s a trade, environment, labor, human-rights, and digital-copyrights agreement, among other things. We would prefer that our trade agreements be trade agreements, but current political realities are not entirely aligned with that straightforward approach. The add-ons will amount to a very high price to pay for a new Pacific trade deal — but it (probably) will be a price worth paying, and Congress should invest President Obama with the so-called fast-track authority that would allow him to submit the deal to lawmakers for a simple yes-or-no vote, with no amendments or filibusters allowed.

But if TPP should land in Congress, then members of the House and Senate should treat it a little more seriously than Congress treated, e.g., the Democrats’ enormously destructive multi-trillion-dollar health-care program, and give the thing a careful read before voting on it, especially considering how little they know about the details of the negotiations up to this point.

The Obama administration, self-proclaimed epitome of openness and transparency, has conducted TPP negotiations largely in secret, with members of Congress permitted to review documents only in person in the office of the U.S. trade representative, without staff. Most of what the public knows about the negotiations has come through a series of releases from WikiLeaks. The level of secrecy here might be appropriate to missile-defense negotiations; it is excessive for a trade deal, especially one involving mostly free and open societies.

The Obama administration has promised that the environmental aspects of the deal will be “fully enforceable in the core of the TPP agreement, on equal footing with the economic obligations our trading partners take on.” We can expect the same to be true of the labor and human-rights aspects of the deal — just as we can expect the Obama administration’s policies in these areas to be as daft and dangerous as the White House’s attitude toward environmental questions. And there surely will be a substantial bill for so-called trade-adjustment assistance, which purports to be a program for workers who are negatively affected by new trade deals but is in reality more of a political slush fund.

Again, the agreement will come with a price; free trade, alas, isn’t free. But trade is critical, which is why it is important that TPP should advance in the absence of an unacceptable deal-breaker.

TPP is largely an agreement among rich countries — the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, etc., the economic laggards being Vietnam and Peru — that are strongly trade-oriented. The TPP countries represent a third of our top 15 export markets; Singapore consumes nearly as much in American goods as does France, which has 12 times the population. Together they constitute a strong economic counterpoint to the major Pacific power missing from the list of TPP countries: China. If the United States does not exercise economic leadership in the Pacific, Beijing surely will.

The United States is a high-wage country with a capital-intensive economy. Our most important exports are big-ticket items such as industrial machinery, aircraft and spacecraft, vehicles, medical and technical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals. With the exception of agricultural products and petroleum — whine about fracking all you like, Moonbeam, the United States is now the world’s largest oil producer — American exports are the sort of things that generally are bound for the markets of wealthy countries. Poor people do not buy very many multi-million-dollar Boeing jets or $400,000 John Deere combines. American manufacturers and service providers generally stake out claims at the high ends of their markets, and trade restrictions hurt a great many American companies and countless American workers, to say nothing of consumers who pay higher prices because of political interference in commerce. American companies do better when they have access to 7 billion customers rather than 315 million.

The predictable economic xenophobes are making the usual noises. Union bosses, debilitated as they are by chronic short-term thinking and always looking to ensure the continued feathering of their own nests, oppose TPP as they oppose nearly all trade deals. Some environmental groups, despite the Obama administration’s assurances, oppose TPP; opposing free enterprise generally, they despise international trade.

And that’s fine if your idea of economic development is planting tomatoes in a window box. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as President Obama’s secretary of state was a TPP advocate, is now moving sideways, looking for an excuse to oppose the agreement she once supported; no doubt she is acutely aware that TPP is strongly opposed in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren, whom many in the left wing of the Democratic party would like to see challenge Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination.

The Obama administration and the various left-leaning groups to which it is hostage will demand a high price for a new trade deal. TPP isn’t so valuable as to be worth having at any price, but given that increased trade and increased investment are the main routes to strong long-term economic growth in the United States, the Pacific trade deal deserves the benefit of the doubt. At minimum, it deserves a hearing and a vote.


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