Trade and the Enforcement Issue

05/18/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

The trade debate is a thoroughly engrossing saga full of intriguing story lines, as both parties find themselves in civil wars as the strange bedfellows of Obama, McConnell, and Boehner, and the combined might of corporate America, try to ram home a deal that, with such an alliance, should be easy to ram. But the fight goes on, and the story lines keep getting more interesting: Will the tea party faction in the House finally trust Obama with the kind of unlimited power on trade he is asking for? Will Hillary take a stand? Will Obama keep taking pot shots at Elizabeth Warren? Will Pelosi rally the Democratic troops in the House to be against Obama the same way Warren and Harry Reid have in the Senate?

I have worked and written a lot on the TPP fight over the last couple of years, and it is going to be intense all the way through, but I wanted to throw another thing into the whole trade discussion today, and that is the issue of enforcement: Why are we to have any faith in the language of these trade deals on labor, the environment, or anything else if the administration won't enforce the rules of trade that already exist? We have seen examples of the lack of enforcement time and time again over the years on deals relating to China and many other countries. One of the big issues that roiled the Senate vote earlier this week was currency manipulation, and Chinese currency manipulation is the classic enforcement issue most on people's minds, but it is far from the only one. Elizabeth Warren just issued an incredibly important new report on the lack of enforcement on arguably the most important single issue, labor standards.


One of the most egregious examples of the lack of enforcement of trade rules is the lack of enforcement around the massive subsidies that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are giving to their countries' state-owned airlines. Under the rules of the WTO, this kind of state subsidy is exactly the kind of thing that is not supposed to happen. Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates Airlines have (according to research done by the admittedly biased U.S. airline industry, although having looked at their white paper myself, I feel that the subsidies they list are quite well-documented) between them received over $42 billion in different kinds of subsidies over the past decade -- subsidies that include various sorts of grants, no-interest loans with no repayment schedule, free land, and free airport fees. But the most outrageous subsidy of all, and the most telling to future trade agreements, is that Qatar and UAE have a ban on all labor unions. Yes, that's right, a complete ban on unions, and yet the United States is not enforcing trade sanctions against them.

The TPP may or not have the most progressive language ever when it comes to labor standards; we won't know until the administration declassifies the document and lets us non-corporate execs take a look at it. But even if the language is the best ever, that wouldn't amount to a hill of beans given that the administration doesn't seem to want to enforce the trade standards that are currently in writing in the WTO.

That's not the half of it. Qatar and UAE are some of the worst human-rights-abusing countries in the world in general. Qatar has been condemned by John Kerry for human trafficking and slavery; UAE has had massive issues with denial of the freedom of expression; both countries have laws on their books allowing blatant discrimination against women and the LGBT community; and most outrageous of all, UAE actually regards homosexual activity as punishable by death. And the three airlines these countries own all follow the kinds of discriminatory practices that their countries practice.

UAE and Qatar want to be our country's modern trading partners, given the same rights and status as first-world countries, but on trafficking, women's rights, LGBT rights, freedom of expression, and labor rights, they want to be in the 14th century. With airlines in this country losing jobs, a lot of the well-paying union jobs, to these countries' wholly owned airlines, this is a huge problem. And if the United States is not going to enforce our trade laws with countries like this, why would they do so with the countries signing up for the TPP?