The Senate Blockbuster Showdown on Trade the Media Missed

03/02/2015 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Eight senators on Thursday let the country know there is going to be a fight over fast-track trade authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to the Senate floor to speak about fast track, TPP and fair trade.

There was apparently not a single report of this in the nation's news media, continuing the blackout of news on fast track and TPP.

A fight is coming because past trade deals have cost jobs and wages, devastated entire regions, and accelerated corporate power and income/wealth inequality -- which it is becoming clear was the intent. Whitehouse, for example, said parts of TPP are "a question of pure raw economic power by massive corporate interests being used to make governments knuckle under."

Sanders said, "Enough is enough. This country now is in a major race to the bottom."

The Speeches

First up on Thursday was Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who began by saying that trade agreements are often "... pushed through this body [the Senate] so quickly that the corporations pushing them hope we won't notice that these agreement are loaded with corporate handouts that weaken our nation's ability to chart its own course."

As an example of corporate handouts, Brown focused mostly on how TPP's investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions -- "corporate courts" -- allow companies to sue countries for passing laws that might interfere with profits, like tobacco companies that are now suing countries for trying to help people quit smoking:

More trade deals gives big tobacco a new tool to peddle its poison. How does that work? Big tobacco turns to trade deals as the most fertile avenue for defeating international health efforts. Big tobacco knows they can't win in this body, even with a conservative majority that too often does the bidding of Wall Street and large companies... So what do tobacco companies do if they can't win in a democratic body here, they use a trade provision called Investor State Dispute Settlement. In the case of big tobacco they use ISDS to challenge public health efforts around the globe.

Then Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey spoke about his "grave concerns about what is in store for our workers and our economy."

Casey said, "Time and again Pennsylvania workers and businesses of all sizes have ended up with the short end of the stick on trade. The question they ask now is what's in it for them, for workers, for companies, and therefore what's in it for all of us when it comes to our economic bottom line."

Casey talked about the harm done by past trade deals, in spite of the promises of jobs that they were sold with:

Take the free trade agreement with South Korea just as a recent example. That was passed in 2011. Here's what we were told. The administration said it would support 70,000 additional American jobs and it would increase American exports by $10-11 billion. So what do we see? During the first two years of the agreement exports actually fell by $3.1 billion, imports grew by $5.6 billion, contributing to the loss of thousands of jobs.

Import surges from South Korea in recent years have caused real damage to the steel industry, which has led directly to job losses.

So workers want to know what's the benefit that's promised to them? Over and over again we hear assertions of if we pass this agreement this will be the impact on exports, this will be the net benefit on job creation and therefore to workers. And too often the result is otherwise.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley began by describing how trade can be a win-win, "[Trade] is a win-win on a level playing field between nations that have roughly the same structure of environmental laws, roughly the same structure of labor laws, roughly the same level of wages, that's a win-win for both nations or multiple nations involved in an agreement."

But not the way we have been doing it:

But our recent trade deals created something quite different. They have been based on an unequal relationship between our nation with strong environmental and labor laws and good wage and high enforcement, and the exact opposite in other countries like China for example. And indeed the result of the period since NAFTA and China -- a loss of 50,000 factories, a loss of 5 million manufacturing workers. That is logical. If you are a company and you are making things, then you are going to move that manufacturing to the place that's cheapest to make things.

Merkley talked about how these bad trade deals were sold, and how we need to follow a higher standard in future trade deals:

The initial publicity campaign is all about creating jobs through increasing American manufacturing but the reality in an unequal relationship is the opposite.

Let us make sure that we create a standard for the consideration of future trade deals - a standard that is whether this deal will create good-paying jobs here in America, will expand prosperity to the middle class here in America, or will it do the opposite. That's the standard we should bring and should apply.

Then Merkley talked about the problem of the secrecy of TPP. "I would like to evaluate the provisions of the proposed deal in that light but I can't," he said. "Because the negotiations are secret. The draft text is secret. We need to demand that there is not secrecy about something as important as creating jobs in America."

Merkley went on to describe several things about TPP that have leaked in spite of the secrecy, concluding:

I encourage Americans to become as familiar as possible with provisions that have been leaked about the TPP, and to think carefully and to give concerns to us here in Congress that we will work to address. When we have the legitimate text before us then we can engage in a detailed debate. But right now we need to push to end the secrecy on an issue so important to our nation and to our families.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse talked about all the manufacturing jobs lost since 1990 because of bad trade deals. We were promised labor and environmental standards, but even the weak standards we got were not enforced.

People say that they're going to enforce the environmental and human rights and labor and safety requirements of these agreements - I haven't seen it. I'm now at the stage where I don't believe it, you're going to have to prove it to me, you're going to have to establish a record of enforcing these things before I'm going to believe it again. I've been told this for too long.

I've got to say I don't like the process very much either. It is secret, we are kept out of it. Who's in it are a lot of really big corporations, and they are up to, I think, no good in a lot of these deals.

Whitehouse also talked about the investor state dispute settlement process, saying, "Look at this, private deals in private forums where they can litigate against a government. They secure that right through these treaty agreement, it is outrageous."

"This is a question of pure raw economic power by massive corporate interests being used to make governments knuckle under on public health issues like tobacco, that's just wrong."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren mostly read from her earlier Washington Post op-ed about ISDS, "The Trans-Pacific Partnership clause everyone should oppose." Her talk is worth watching in its entirety.

"Who will benefit from the TPP? American workers? Consumers? Small businesses? Taxpayers? Or the biggest multinational corporations in the world?" she asked.

The dispute process, she said, "would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws -- and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers -- without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court."

ISDS could lead to gigantic fines, but it wouldn't employ independent judges. Instead, highly paid corporate lawyers would go back and forth between representing corporations one day and sitting in judgment the next. Maybe that makes sense in an arbitration between two corporations, but not in cases between corporations and governments. If you're a lawyer looking to maintain or attract high-paying corporate clients, how likely are you to rule against those corporations when it's your turn in the judge's seat?

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said, "Enough is enough. This country now is in a major race to the bottom."

Sanders said the trade deals are part of what has led to "a Walmart economy."

"In my view if we look at why the middle class of this country has been in decline for the last 409 years, why millions of Americans are working longer hours for low wages, why we have seen a huge shift in the economy from a manufacturing economy where people earn good wages to a Walmart economy where people are working for low wages and minimal benefits one, not the only but one, of the significant factors has been our disastrous trade policies for a number of decades."

Sanders pointed out the lack of news coverage of "the largest trade agreement in the history of America," saying, "A study looked at how the major television networks are covering the TPP. Well, it turns out that the major networks are not covering the TPP. The largest trade agreement in the history of America has received no coverage."

Sanders talked about the way free trade with China was sold, and the terrible consequences to this country:

"I remember way back when we had a discussion about unfettered free trade with China. The argument was look at that huge market in China, look at all of the jobs that we will create in America selling products to China. In fact we were told that PNTR [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] with China would create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. Well not quite.

It turns out that as everyone who goes into a department store know most of the products that we buy are made in China. And it turns out that PNTR with China has led to the loss of more than 3 million good-paying America jobs.

And the reason for that is obvious if you are an American corporation why are you going to pay an American worker $15-20 an hour, provide decent benefits, obey environmental laws, you can shut down here, go to China, pay people very low wages, bring your products back to America. And that's why when you go shopping, most of the products you buy are made in China."

NAFTA, Korea -- same thing:

We were told that NAFTA would create at least 200,000 American jobs in just a few years. Well, not quite. Turns out NAFTA has led to the loss of just about 1 million American jobs.

We were told that the Korean free trade agreement would increase American jobs. Well, turns out it has led to the loss of over 60,000 American jobs.

Since we signed NAFTA the USA has a cumulative trade deficit of $8.8 trillion. That's wealth that has left the US and gone overseas.

As for problems with the TPP:

While the full text of the TPP has not been made public there have been some leaks of what is included in it and what these leaks tell us is in fact very disturbing. I think it is obvious to anyone who has taken a look at this issue that the TPP is just a new easy way for corporations to shut down in America and send jobs abroad. The US it is estimated would lose more than 130,000 jobs to Vietnam and Japan alone if TPP goes into effect.

The minimum wage in Vietnam is 56 cents an hour. Maybe I am old-fashioned but I don't think American workers should be forced to compete against people making just 56 cents an hour.

At a time when corporations have already outsourced over 3 million service sector jobs from the US TPP includes rules that will make it easier for corporate America to outsource call centers, computer programming, engineering, accounting and medical diagnostic jobs. Under the TPP Vietnamese companies will be able to compete with US companies for contracts financed by American taxpayers undermining Buy American laws.

It's not just Republicans that are the problem, he said.

If the US is to remain a major industrial power, producing real products and creating good-paying jobs we must develop a new set of trade policies which work for the ordinary American worker and not for large corporations and big campaign donors. And let me be very frank as an independent, this is not just the Republicans who have been supporting these unfettered free trade agreements, there have been Democratic presidents as well. Corporate America has said we want these trade policies and the leaders of both political parties have said Yeah that's what we will do.

The bottom line:

Enough is enough. This country now is in a major race to the bottom. Workers are working longer hours for lower wages. No American worker should be forced to compete against desperate people around the world who are making pennies an hour. Corporate America every night on television in every ad that you see tells us buy this product buy that product. Well if they want us to buy these products maybe it's high time they started manufacturing these products here in the US.

So I am opposed to the TPP. I would hope that every member is opposed to this fast track process that gives the president the authority to negotiate these agreements in the final terms. And that is because nobody has had to opportunity to really even see what is in the proposed agreement right now. Transparency has been absolutely minimal.

If we are serious about creating decent paying jobs in this country, raising wages, dealing with the other issues that have surfaced in terms of sovereignty... The idea that we would make it easier for tobacco companies to sell their deadly products to children around the world, and make it harder for governments to protect the health of their citizens is an outrage. I hope the American people stand up and tell the Congress enough is enough.

Here are the speeches by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.


This post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.