The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Good or Bad? But Definitely Ugly

Leaders of the TPP Member States - Image via commons.wikimedia.org

Leaders of the TPP Member States - Image via commons.wikimedia.org

UPDATE: The Senate passed the "Fast Track" bill in a procedural vote on Thursday, 62-34. A final vote for the bill will be held on Friday. If passed then, the bill will go to the House next month.


The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been making political waves lately, mainly dealing with Elizabeth Warren's harsh criticisms of the TPP and Obama's adamant stance on defending it and expediting it with the help of Congress.

But what exactly is it? It's a trade partnership that is currently in the works between 12 different countries within the Asia Pacific Region - including the U.S., Singapore, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and others. Congress is voting on the Trade Promotion Authority, or the "Fast Track" bill for the TPP on Friday, which wouldn't allow Congress to amend or filibuster it. When the TPP comes to the ratification vote (which would be in two weeks time if "Fast Track" passes), Congress would only be able to vote "Yea" or "Nay," essentially hastening the process and promoting rubber-stamping. 

So what's the issue? For the TPP, the devil is on the details - or lack thereof. 

Only "cleared advisors" and Congress are only allowed to see certain portions (chosen by the United States Trade Representative - an office of the executive) of the agreement in secure conditions and under surveillance. If any of the "advisors" or anyone in Congress has criticisms, they can't make those details public. Advisors have had to give their two cents with limited information, and if the "Fast Track" bill gets passed by Congress, they will be expected to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on something that they have a very limited and carefully screened view on. 

To be fair, it's the norm for trade deals to be relatively secretive - the negotiation of NAFTA, for example, involved drafts being physically locked in safes. But in an op-ed Michael Wessel (one of the "cleared advisors" with access to the TPP) wrote for Politico on Tuesday, the Obama Administration's level of secrecy is blocking meaningful debate.

"The text of the TPP, like all trade deals, is a closely guarded secret. That fact makes a genuine public debate impossible and should make robust debate behind closed doors all the more essential. But the ability of TPP critics like me to point out the deal’s many failings is limited by the government’s surprising and unprecedented refusal to make revisions to the language in the TPP fully available to cleared advisors."

He also points out the political implications of Obama's responses to public critics:

"The government has created a perfect Catch 22: The law prohibits us from talking about the specifics of what we’ve seen, allowing the president to criticize us for not being specific."

So even those with cleared access, whose job it is to advise the president on the agreement's shortcomings, are "almost flying blind" in that respect. It's impossible for the public to know what's going on, and it's impossible to have a constructive conversation between policy advisors and decision-makers.

Why should I care about this? Enter WikiLeaks.

They released limited sections of the TPP drafts in 2013. What was found was very concerning to some, especially for those who like internet privacy. The Intellectual Property, Environment, and Labor sections are ones that are raising the most concern. There are numerous arguments for and against the accord - so here's a handy dandy list:

PROS:

  • International trade would be much smoother is TPP passes. (Brookings)
  • U.S.-Japan relations would get even stronger, due to an increase in trade. (Brookings)
  • TPP is a geopolitical key to rebalancing Asia and avoiding future tensions about the staying power the U.S. has in that region. (Brookings)
  • Increase in trade and investment with TPP countries - more jobs, stronger economy, etc. (Trade Benefits America Coalition)
  • Expand trade with six more Free Trade Agreement countries. (TBA Coalition)
  • Open new markets in five non-Free Trade Agreement countries, benefitting businesses, farmers, and workers. (TBA Coalition)
  • Import nearly $10 trillion worth of goods to the U.S. in 2020. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce)
  • Boost U.S. exports by $124 billion by 2025. (U.S. CoC)
  • "The TPP would strengthen ties between Asia and the Americas, create a new template for the conduct of international trade and investment, and potentially lead to a comprehensive free trade area (FTA) in the Asia-Pacific." (Peterson Institute for International Economics)

CONS:

  • Lacks basic environmental protection provisions. (National Geographic)
  • Fails to discourage strains on resources like forests (illegal logging), wildlife (illegal wildlife products), and fish (overfishing). (Sierra Club, National Geographic)
  • May lack provisions to protect basic labor rights for those in countries like Vietnam and other Asian countries. (The Guardian)
  • Easier for American companies to ship jobs overseas, taking away U.S. jobs. (Expose the TPP)
  • You could have your computer seized or get jail time if you're found "connected" to copyright infringement activity. (OpenMedia, Electronic Frontier Foundation)
  • Getting works to the public domain will take longer: minimum 70 years after authors death. (OpenMedia, EFF)
  • If you transfer your DVDs to digital and get caught, you can technically be fined up to $10,000. (OpenMedia)
  • Internet providers would essentially become "cops," monitoring activity for copyright infringement and have the full authority to block entire websites from access. (OpenMedia)
  • Developing nations would have to pay big bucks for royalties and costs for enforcement of these new copyright rules. The winners in this scenario? Primarily Hollywood and the pharmaceutical industry. (EFF)
  • Journalists/Whistleblowers may be at risk due to a vague draft provision criminalizing the "misuse of trade secrets through 'computer systems.'" (EFF)

The pros and cons of the TPP highly depend on where you stand on labor issues, internet freedom and privacy, the environment and copyright law, among other things. But when the public, lawmakers, and advisors have to rely on WikiLeaks to provide important information for such a sweeping and effectual international agreement - you know the situation is an ugly one.