President Barack Obama is girding for battle with Congress – this time, with the resistance coming from his own party – over a “fast track” bill that greases the wheels for one of the biggest free trade deals in history.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership means major changes to the U.S. economy – some positive, some painful. But with Democrats already at war with each other, and dozens of other thorny issues tied to the deal on the horizon, this fight is also going to extend into 2016 election season, guaranteeing it a prominent place in the political debate for the next 20 months.
Here are six reasons you should drop everything and read about the trade war.
The deal is absolutely massive.
You thought the North American Free Trade Agreement was big? Try this on for size: The United States, Canada and Mexico are involved, but so are nine other Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan – the market American businesses really want to break into.
Combined, they make up 40% of the world’s economy. And if the deal is implemented, it could change everything from where your shoes and shirts are made to where U.S. car companies, pharmaceutical drugmakers and the energy industry sell their products. That’s why the biggest U.S. business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, are lobbying so hard for the deal.
It forces us to grapple with really tough questions.
Should it be harder for poor countries like Malaysia to make generic versions of expensive drugs patented by U.S. pharmaceutical companies? Should Japan’s small family farmers be forced to abandon their heritage and compete with industrial American farms’ products? Why make a deal that allows Vietnam, with all its child labor abuses, sell more shoes and T-shirts into the United States? These are all issues that the deal’s critics raise.
Its proponents, though, point out that American businesses are currently closed out of huge markets. The deal would create new openings to sell agricultural products, natural gas, cars and more into Japan’s developed economy, and Australia’s, and New Zealand’s. It would include labor and environmental protections that were missing from NAFTA. And it would give the United States a foot in the door with a host of developing countries. Proponents ask: How can those opportunities be turned away?
Really, this is about China.
Remember Obama’s infamous Asia pivot – the one Hillary Clinton was spearheading as secretary of state? This deal is its economic underpinning.
China isn’t involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it is working on its own trade deal in the region, with many of the same countries. And that deal won’t include the labor and environmental language, or the crackdown on government-owned and operated businesses, or the Internet freedom language, that the United States is insisting on.
Proponents say the deal is the United States’ chance to install itself as an economic force in the region, and to require some of the participating countries to play by its rules. The alternative is that those countries could fall increasingly into China’s orbit.
It’s turned Democrats against each other.
This is unusual: Obama’s with Republicans on one side, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is leading a Democratic rebellion on the other. Labor unions, environmental groups and consumer advocacy organizations are hoping to thwart the deal – with the AFL-CIO halting its contributions to Democratic candidates to pump its resources into this fight.
Making things even weirder: A smattering of populist Republicans, mostly tea partiers, are joining the liberals. For them, it’s not so much about opposition to trade. They just don’t trust Obama and are hesitant to hand him any new authority.
This fight’s going several rounds.
Round One will be over “trade promotion authority,” or “fast track.” It’s a complicated bill that allows Obama to submit the Trans-Pacific Partnership to Congress for an up-or-down vote with limited debate and no amendments. No amendments – that’s the real key to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and his negotiating team, who say they can’t get foreign countries to take their own political risks by making final offers and agreeing to a deal if they think Congress might just change it down the road.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and that panel’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden, have introduced a fast-track bill. Trickiest will be the House, where Democrats’ opposition runs deep and tea partiers could complicate the math.
Round Two will be over the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself. And that’s not coming too soon. The fastest it could arrive in front of Congress – after some delays for public review mandated by the fast-track bill, a legal scrub, the final negotiations and more – is five to six months after fast-track has become law. That would drop the debate right into the middle of presidential primary season.
It’s a huge challenge for Hillary Clinton.
That Democrat-on-Democrat battle is all but certain to extend into the 2016 presidential primary and beyond. After all, Sen. Bernie Sanders is pulling out every procedural stop he can to slow a key trade bill down, ahead of a likely run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Republicans are unanimous in their support for the trade deal. Clinton, though, has to find a way to mollify the liberals who could complicate her path to the Democratic nomination – and also decide whether she’s willing to give the GOP a cudgel to use against her in the general election. And there’s no doubt they’d use it; already, Republicans are staking out ground in favor of the deal, with Sen. Ted Cruz co-authoring an op-ed with Ryan in the Wall Street Journal in support of the fast-track bill.
To the left, the White House might have made Clinton’s sales job a bit harder when Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz suggested she’s on the same page with Obama on trade.
“I believe that if you look at the points that are being raised in terms of human rights, environmental protections, labor protections, that those are important priorities of this President,” he said. “So I haven’t seen anything to suggest any distance.”
Likely Clinton challenger Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, said in a video that he’s “against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” suggesting he’ll make it a focal point of his primary campaign.