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The Secret, Scary Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): What You Need to Know

January 13, 2014

To a Less Free Future! In December 2013, Sec. of State John Kerry invited the Philippines to join the TPP. Source/credit: Balita: Filipino News

Despite the efforts of the Obama administration, over the last few months, word has been bubbling up about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. With that increasing knowledge has come increased outrage across wide-ranging interests, governments, and party lines. What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), why is the Obama administration trying to keep it secret, and why is it provoking a growing outcry?

General TPP Facts:

  • It’s big. The TPP would establish a free trade zone from Vietnam to Chile, covering about 800 million people, 40 percent of the global economy, and a third of world trade.
  • But the contents of the agreement aren’t really about international trade, at least in the traditional sense. “The agreement has 29 chapters, and only five of them have to do with trade. The other 24 chapters either handcuff our domestic governments, limiting food safety, environmental standards, financial regulation, energy and climate policy, or establishing new powers for corporations,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch on Democracy Now, 10/4/13.
  • As Secretary of State, John Kerry has been one of the leaders in promoting the TPP and the Obama administration’s wishes for it abroad. At the October 2013 APEC Summit in Indonesia, Kerry said, “At its core, TPP is about generating growth for our economies and jobs for our people by unleashing a wave of investment and entrepreneurship all across the Asia Pacific. And at a time when we, all of us, seek strong and sustainable growth, TPP is creating a race to the top, not to the bottom.”
  • The Obama administration is trying to Fast Track the TPP, meaning that Congress would only get a yes-or-no vote on whether to pass it and no ability to discuss or amend the agreement. Explains Bloomberg, “The trade authority, which expired in 2007, lets Congress set parameters for considering trade deals, and allows lawmakers to pass the accords without making amendments.”
  • The Obama administration hoped to finish TPP negotiations by the end of 2013, but it’s been delayed, in part  by countries who disagree with U.S. (and frequently Australian) proposals to give huge amounts of power to corporations.

Closed Doors–to Everyone But Corporations

  • From The Washington Post on 11/15/13: “The United States Trade Representative and the Obama administration have kept the treaty texts secret from the public. However, they have shared texts with 700 or so “cleared advisers,” all of whom come from intellectual property rights holders’ industries,” including Verizon, Cisco, and General Electric.
  • Says Wallach, “And it was only after a big, great fuss was kicked up by a lot of members—150 of them wrote last year—that finally members of Congress, upon request for the particular chapter, can have a government administration official bring them a chapter. Their staff is thrown out of the room. They can’t take detailed notes. They’re not supposed to talk about what they saw. And they can, without staff to help them figure out what the technical language is, look at a chapter.” (Democracy Now, 10/4/13, above and here)

Who Opposes it and Why?

  • The U.S. has taken extreme positions even among fellow TPP negotiating countries, leading to some discord and stalling in negotations.
  • Congress. According to Susan Sell, Political Science Professor at George Washington University in The Washington Post‘s 11/15/13 post, “Congress has already expressed displeasure at being shut out of this process. When its members see how provisions that had been defeated in a domestic, democratic, and deliberative process in January 2012 have been included in TPP I suspect that they will not be happy.”
  • And she’s right. In November 151 Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter opposing the Fast Track process, while 22 Republicans in Congress, including Michele Bachmann and PA Representative Mike Fitzpatrick, sent their own letter to President Obama opposing it.
  • The venerable international NGO Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Intellectual property rules contained in the TPP would make the medicines relied on by Doctors Without Borders and the populations they serve unaffordable. As explained in their action alert, “We need to keep prices low so our patients — and millions of others still waiting for treatment in the developing world — can get the medicines they need.”
  • Anyone who’s done the economic analysis. The TPP wouldn’t actually benefit U.S. trade, and could even hurt it. For example, the TPP prohibits the popular Buy American provisions that promote U.S. jobs and competitiveness of U.S.-made goods. Public Citizen has a breakdown of the myths and facts here. And even Bloomberg, typically pro-capitalism, has expressed strong reservations, publishing an article entitled “Pacific Trade Deal Needs More WikiLeaking” or, as published in The Japan Times, “WikiLeaks Reveals why Asia Should Skip the TPP.”

Corporate Rights Above All: TPP and the Environment

  • “Only the United States and Japan oppose the objectives in the treaty (Article QQ.A.2) that mention economic and social development, maintaining a balance between the interests of rights holders and users, protecting the public domain, quality examination procedures, and access to affordable medicines,” says George Washington University’s Professor Susan Sell.
  • Says Public Citizen’s Wallach, “It would be a big push for fracking. Now you would say, ‘Why fracking?’ Because it doesn’t allow us to have bans on liquid natural gas exports. Or, if this were in effect, we couldn’t ensure the safety of the food we feed our families. We have to import, for instance, fish and shrimp that we know, from the limited inspection that’s done, is extremely dangerous from certain kinds of growing ponds that are contaminated, etc., in some of the TPP countries.” (Democracy Now 10/4/13, above and here)

The Investor-State System

  • The TPP includes the investor-state system, in which corporations can sue governments if their expected profits are impacted by any government action, including those pushed for by the people. Explains Wallach, these cases wouldn’t be heard in government courts, “but in extrajudicial tribunals where three corporate attorneys act as ‘judges,’ and these guys rotate between being the judge and being the guys suing the government for the corporation. They’re empowered to give unlimited cash damages from us, the taxpayers, to these corporations.” Philip Morris is already doing this in Australia in retaliation for legislated plain cigarette packaging with larger health warnings. According to Public Citizen, in 2012, the U.S. Lone Pine company “launched a $250 million NAFTA investor-state case against a Canadian ban on fracking.”
  • More details about the rights given to corporations under the TPP and investor-state systems are available from Public Citizen here. Besides chilling public opposition, regulation, and government action, the investor-state system rarely allows people and governments to hold corporations accountable. As detailed in Public Citizen’s fact sheet on TPP and the environment, instead, corporations will leave a country to avoid accountability in domestic courts, then sue from afar.

What You Can Do

  • As Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen puts it, “We need to stop fast track, for one. […] Fast track makes it easier for industry groups to ram bad policies through, via the Office of the US Trade Representative, with little Congressional oversight. Last week nearly half of Congress revolted against fast track authority, and we can build on that success. Members of Congress need to hear the message: no to fast track.”
  • Email your members of Congress and tell them to vote No on Fast Track. Electronic Frontier Foundation has a general, slightly tech-centered letter to send through their website to your members of Congress.
  • Or, call Congress. Public Citizen has instructions and a script on their website.

Further Reading

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