The Debate

Ahead of Abe Visit, Pressure Builds For Obama on TPP

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The Debate

Ahead of Abe Visit, Pressure Builds For Obama on TPP

The clock is ticking for the Obama administration to get the TPP past Congress.

Ahead of Abe Visit, Pressure Builds For Obama on TPP
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In less than fifty days, Japan will begin its biggest holiday period of the year. Golden Week, which lasts from April 27 to May 10, includes seven public holidays, and is typically a time for rest and relaxation. You wouldn’t have any trouble spotting Japanese tourists at San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, or sunbathing on Guam’s Gun Beach during that time.

Joining the exodus will be Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He’s expected to arrive in Washington for a state visit, during which he could become Japan’s first premier to address a joint session of Congress. That speech could come at a critical moment. Congress is deep in negotiations on “fast track” trade promotion authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would allow the White House to deliver a finalized agreement to the legislature without the threat of amendment. TPP negotiations are still ongoing between 12 countries on both sides of the Pacific, including the U.S. and Japan.

If the current mood in Congress is any indication, Abe’s visit will be anything but a walk in the park. At a heated hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee last Wednesday, TPP supporters got an earful from critics in the lower chamber. “Goods that are 65 percent admitted made in China, which means they may be 70, 80, or 90 percent made in China, they get ‘made in Korea’ put on them,” Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, argued in his opening remarks. “That’s the value added in Korea. They come into our country duty-free, and we get no benefits, no access to the Chinese market.”

China isn’t involved in the TPP: Sherman is referring to “rules of origin,” which determine how goods produced outside the free trade zone are treated in the agreement. Still, Sherman is hardly the only voice on President Obama’s side of the aisle that has expressed misgivings about the deal, which encompasses nearly 40 percent of the world economy.

Labor advocates like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich have come out strongly against “fast track” in an LA Times op-ed: “A fast-tracked TPP would lock in a rigged set of economic rules, lasting potentially forever, before most Americans – let alone some members of Congress – have had a chance to understand it thoroughly.” Trumka and Reich fear putting TPP on the fast track will encourage outsourcing and abuses by multinational corporations while doing little to prevent currency manipulation or a tamp down on trade deficits.

Liberals also see a history of free trade agreements inversely impacting the U.S. trade deficit, which fell by 8.3 percent to $41.8 billion in January, per the Commerce Department, on the news of shrinking imports and exports. The Economic Policy Institute, pointed to an increase in that deficit from $110.3 billion in 1997 to $261.7 billion in 2014, alongside job losses from NAFTA and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

These are familiar and tired arguments to advocates of the TPP. If signed, it would become the largest trade pact ever culminated. “Trade rules for a different time either become outdated or incomplete,” Scott Miller, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told the Asia subcommittee hearing in a testimony on Wednesday afternoon. Denying American businesses entry to the world’s largest free trade zone would be an exercise in self-destruction, the argument holds.

It’s tough to see how President Obama will be able to reach a middle ground with Democrats. Even Democrats in export-oriented states approach the TPP with some trepidation. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat charged with drafting the fast track bill with Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, has expressed serious doubts. He and other Democrats fear that the president wants to move too quickly: the White House is hoping to move on to finishing a trade agreement with Europe later this year.

None of this is to say that delivering fast track authority before Abe’s visit will be impossible. But President Obama must tend to his base before he can move forward. That’s nothing new: this White House has faced difficulties before in whipping liberal votes for centrist proposals. This will be a particularly tough sell.