The TPP's Not Dead Yet (But It's Close)

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As my colleague Zachary Keck reported several weeks ago, the ambitious economic agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership hit a major roadblock in mid-November when a large bipartisan group in Congress expressed concerns over the negotiating process. Now, a new Congressional caucus is trying to regain momentum on the agreement.

The Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Caucus, officially launched on Oct. 29, 2013, represents a counter-attack to the growing tide of anti-TPP sentiment. The four co-chairs of the caucus include two Democrats and two Republicans: Dave Reichert (R-WA), Ron Kind (D-WI), Charles W. Boustany, Jr., M.D., (R-LA), and Gregory Meeks (D-NY). In a statement on the release of the caucus, each of the co-chairs reaffirmed their commitment to TPP, and their belief that the agreement represents an opportunity both for the U.S. and for average Americans.

Two of the co-chairs, Boustany and Reichert, expanded on these ideas in an event held yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.  Both expressed their belief that the TPP would be good for their constituents, and good for the U.S. in general.  Boustany and Reichert also seemed optimistic about the chances of getting Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority, which would allow the Obama administration to negotiate TPP without worrying about Congress adding amendments.

Still, they acknowledged the challenges ahead for the agreement. With all the negative publicity surrounding TPP, “it’s going to require all hands on deck” to produce results, said Boustany. He meant that the administration would need to coordinate a pro-TPP push in all relevant departments, including the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office as well as the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Treasury. Meanwhile, Reichert said that Congressional support would be needed “to pull the administration along.” Put their statements together, and it becomes clear that TPP will need strong backing in both the executive and legislative branches to survive.

Any sort of free trade agreement is notoriously difficult to get through Congress. For example, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2007, but not actually approved by Congress until October 2011. In the meantime, the U.S. and South Korea had to continue negotiations on the deal to make it more palatable. As Boustany mentioned at the CSIS discussion, bilateral FTAs are tough to pass, but TPP is an enormous multilateral deal and will be proportionately more difficult.

Plus, TPP faces additional challenges beyond those normally faced by FTAs. While most FTAs face opposition from interest groups in vulnerable industries like textiles, agriculture, and manufacturing, TPP is threatened by public disapproval on a much wider level. The secretive process of TPP negotiations has many on edge, especially as recent spying scandals have eroded trust in the U.S. government. The draft texts of the treaty are not publicly available, and even many members of Congress don’t have access to the documents.

However, the drafts are shown to around 700 “cleared advisers” who largely represent business interests. As Susan Sell, a political science professor at George Washington University, wrote for the Washington Post, people with access to drafts  “include representatives of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Entertainment Software Association, as well as firms such as Gilead Sciences, Johnson and Johnson, Verizon, Cisco Systems, and General Electric.” This has led to concerns that TPP is designed for corporate interests, and will not actually benefit average Americans (much less the rest of the world).

To take one example, according to the draft of the TPP’s Intellectual Property Rights Chapter posted on WikiLeaks, some of the provisions are similar to those found in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Both of these acts failed to pass in the U.S. due in part to intense public debate. Now many are concerned that the U.S. government is using the secretive TPP process to put in place regulations that the American public has already rejected. Julian Assange, the Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, accused the Obama administration of “aggressively pushing the TPP through the US legislative process on the sly.”

This perception is gaining hold. During the latest round of meetings in Salt Lake City in late November, activists held protests demanding more transparency in the process. And the protests aren’t just limited to the U.S. — there have also been protests in Japan, Canada, and Australia, all of which are considered some of the U.S.’ strongest allies in the TPP negotiations. In fact, according to an article in The Monkey Cage by Gabriel Michael, the U.S. is one of the most isolated countries in the TPP negotiations. His analysis, based on the draft released by WikiLeaks, shows that the U.S. has a tendency to oppose popular provisions and propose unpopular ones.

With support at home and abroad flagging, it will take a concentrated effort to push the TPP through both the final negotiating stage and then past Congress.  At this point, it’s fair to wonder if Obama has the ability to push through a controversial trade agreement — and if so, if that’s actually where he wants to spend his remaining political capital. A bruising fight with Congress over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, coupled with a disastrous first month for Obama’s signature health care system, has led to record lows in the President’s approval ratings. As of December 5, Obama’s approval rating was in the low 40 or high 30 percent range, leaving Obama without much wiggle room when it comes to pushing forward on unpopular policies. Plus, the administration will need its energy for other concerns. The historic deal with Iran already faces trouble in Congress, where senators opposed to the deal are working on their own bill to add sanctions on Iran.

Obama will have to pick his battles in the remaining years of his presidency, and TPP might not make the cut. Without strong presidential backing, even the TPP’s friends in Congress recognize any effort to pass the agreement would be futile. And then it’s back to square one as to how the U.S. will organize its economic “rebalance to Asia.”

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