Congress Must Vet the Pacific Rim Trade Proposal

By James P. Hoffa, General President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Published in The Detroit News on July 10, 2013

Workers across Michigan and the U.S. are working harder today for less pay than they received just a few years ago.

Jobs that once allowed wage earners to support their families disappeared during the last recession, replaced by jobs that pay poverty wages. But more importantly, millions of good jobs have been exported over the past 20 years because of bad trade deals such as NAFTA, CAFTA and PNTR. It’s no accident that the average American family’s income has fallen over that period as politicians of both parties signed “free trade” deals that trade American jobs and safety standards for bigger corporate profits.

As difficult as it is for hardworking Americans to lead middle-class lives today, it could get worse if Congress doesn’t make sure trade agreements currently being negotiated are in the interest of American families. Congress has virtually no input into the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as talks are being held behind closed doors with 600 corporate “advisors.”

Members of Congress are inching toward considering the TPP deal on a straight up-or-down vote.  If that happens, lawmakers would be giving away their own ability to amend the pact once trade representatives with the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations agree to it. Approval of so-called “fast-track” authority would also limit debate on the deal and keep many of its details shrouded in secrecy until it is too late.

What is there to lose under fast track? Plenty.  For instance, top Michigan lawmakers earlier this year raised concerns about including Japan in the TPP, noting its leaders have hampered U.S. auto sales. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, “If Japan does not ultimately agree to stop blocking American companies from its markets, I will urge the President and the Congress not to ratify this trade agreement.”  Rep. Sander Levin added, “The onus should be on Japan to open their market before receiving any benefit through a trade agreement with the United States.”

But if Congress approves fast-track authority these concerns may not even be debated. Even if they do, no changes would be allowed in the trade agreement’s language. Lawmakers would have to decide whether to vote “yes” or “no” on a trade deal that’s probably flawed but can’t be fixed.

Fast track ties the hands of elected officials.  Members of Congress wouldn’t have a chance to amend TPP language that could cause all kinds of problems. It could endanger American food and consumer safety, undermine labor rules, eliminate Buy American provisions, weaken environmental protections, and even restrict the freedom of the Internet. 

We can’t allow this agreement to be rammed through Congress with an up-or-down vote. No one doubts the value of fair trade, but it’s not fair if it puts American workers at a disadvantage and American consumers at risk. This treaty needs to be fully vetted for its impact on our families and not rubber-stamped as a partnership between big corporations and big profits.

If the TPP is good for the U.S., the Obama administration and lawmakers shouldn’t be concerned about it being debated out in the open on the House and Senate floors.  Under the Constitution, Congress is granted the sole authority to debate and approve trade legislation.  Lawmakers need to do their job and take a good look at this secretive trade deal rather than rush it through without full inspection. A quick up or down vote will not give the TPP the scrutiny it needs. U.S. workers and industries deserve better.

To read archived articles from General President Hoffa, click here.