Obama vs. Warren On Trade: Behind the Charge She’s Just ‘a Politician’

Dave Johnson

As the Senate begins consideration today of the “fast track” trade promotion authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Obama says that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is expressing concerns because she is “a politician.”

The president’s statement demeaning what Warren (D-Mass.) is saying as just what politicians say makes it seem that he thinks that listening to constituents and doing that they want (a.k.a. “representative democracy”) is a bad thing. But Warren and almost every other Democrat have come to understand that trade agreements that send American jobs out of the country – and the fast track process that is used to push them through – have become core issues that could trigger severe public reaction. This Fast Track vote is politically the third-rail equivalent of the 2002 vote to authorize Bush to invade Iraq.

It is the job of politicians to represent us. Politicians had better be concerned about being thrown out of office for doing something the public doesn’t want, because that is how our system is supposed to function.

Warren has responded with a challenge to the president: “Declassify the text and let people see it” before the Senate votes to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership into law.

Fast-Tracking TPP

With fast track, Congress agrees to set aside its duties under Article 1 section 8 of the Constitution and vote on TPP within 90 days of it being signed, to severely limit discussion and debate, not to filibuster the agreement in the Senate and not to amend it not matter what problems turn up after the agreement is revealed. Fast track essentially pre-approves the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement (and future trade bills) before the public gets a chance to know what is in it.

The TPP is being negotiated in secret using a corporate-dominated process. Many of the negotiators come from the corporate/financial sector (and many likely will pass through the revolving door into the corporate/financial sector.) Even though the agreement remains secret from the public, more than 600 corporate representatives are privy to its text. Meanwhile, representatives from labor, environmental, consumer, health, LGBT, Internet freedom, democracy and other stakeholder groups have little or no input or access.

Because of the close relationship between the negotiators and representatives of multinational corporations, it is understood that TPP will advance the interests of large, American corporations. For the same reason many of the excluded stakeholders are concerned that the agreement will be harmful to their interests and the interests of many or even most Americans. They cite the rigged process, combined with what has been learned from leaks of parts of the agreement and the terrible effects from past trade agreements like NAFTA, the recent Korea-U.S. agreement and most others.

To put it bluntly, the interests of the large corporations are not aligned with the interests of most Americans. The corporations want people to be paid lower wages, they want fewer environmental protections, they don’t want to (and many no longer do) pay taxes to support our schools, roads, courts, and other public goods, and they want government “out of the way” and unable to regulate or enforce (or even pass) laws. Rigged trade agreements have become one channel for them to achieve these goals.

Senator Warren, President Obama and Democracy

Senator Elizabeth Warren and other senators have been expressing concerns about TPP and about the fact that the vote on Fast Track will take place before the public is able to see what is in the agreement. Recently President Obama called them “dishonest” and this weekend dismissed Warren’s public concerns about fast track, TPP and the way TPP is being kept secret from the public, saying, “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else.”

Warren responded to Obama in an interview at The Washington Post’s Plum Line,

WARREN: The president has committed only to letting the public see this deal after Congress votes to authorize fast track. At that point it will be impossible for us to amend the agreement or to block any part of it without tanking the whole TPP. The TPP is basically done. If the president is so confident it’s a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it.

PLUM LINE: Doesn’t the current framework allow for the revocation of fast track authority?

WARREN: The whole point about fast track is to grease the skids so that 51 votes will get it through…it takes a majority to get rid of [fast track].

Warren Explains How TPP Would Increase Corporate Power

The other day, in How TPP Increases Corporate Power vs. Government – And Us, I wrote about how corporations get a special channel for resolving violations of TPP while labor and environmental violations have no enforcement channel. In the Plum Line interview Warren makes this same point, saying:

Once a group of independent arbiters, whose decisions cannot be appealed, can issue a money judgment of any size, then the ISDS [investor-state dispute settlement] problem arises….Here’s what you could do. If corporations had to go through the same procedures that anyone else has to go through to get the trade deal enforced, then the problem wouldn’t exist.

Now, if a labor union says, ‘Vietnam promised not to work people for a couple of dollars a day, and to raise working conditions, and then failed to do it,” they have to get the U.S. government, through the trade rules, to go to Vietnam and prosecute the case. If corporations had to do the same thing, then it would be a level playing field…ISDS gives a special break to giant corporations, a break that nobody else gets.

Rep. Levin Open Letter

The President says fast track is needed to finalize TPP. However he did not put any effort into promoting the “path to yes” bill offered by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). This approach was supported by Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the AFL-CIO, among others. As described in A ‘Path To Yes’ On Trade, But Paul Ryan Blocks It:

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, on Thursday offered an alternative, the Right Track for TPP Act of 2015. … This bill is a fast track process for doing trade right — or at least for modifying the secretly negotiated TPP so it can be somewhat palatable to more of us than just the 1 percent.

[. . .] The AFL-CIO had backed the right track alternative, saying in a letter to Congress that it “represents a strong improvement over traditional Fast Track legislation. It limits trade promotion authority only to the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) and provides mandatory oversight and instructions from Congress, as opposed to the unenforceable and aspirational objectives in fast track.

This is an approach Democrats could have unified around. Democrats have been torn between supporting the fast track process, or going against President Obama. This bill provides a way for them to support the President on trade, while showing that there can be a path to doing trade right.

On Monday Rep. Levin posted a very serious open letter following up on this effort, “An Open Letter to Progressives: TPP Is Not Yet ‘The Most Progressive Trade Agreement in History’“:

House Democrats know a progressive trade agreement when we see it because we are the ones who built the foundation. We think the TPP agreement, as it stands today, falls short of what is needed. And we don’t want to give up our leverage by granting “fast-track” authority until we know that TPP is on the right track.

[. . .] I would urge in the coming weeks that the administration not question the commitment of Democrats to build a better trade policy. TPA is in trouble because TPP is not yet on the right track. I, for one, would grant the president the authority to finalize a trade agreement once I am far more certain it is the best deal we can get.

Please click through and read the entire letter.

TV Networks Maintain Blackout Of New On Fast Track/TPP

With the Senate voting process beginning Tuesday on what even President Obama described as “rewriting the rules of business for the 21st century” our broadcast news shows continue their blackout of public information about this huge trade agreement and the fast track process that essentially pre-approves it. Media Matters explains, in “As Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate Rages, Broadcast Evening News Stays Silent“:

Broadcast nightly news programs have remained silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) over the past three months of weekday programming, even as Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to grant President Obama authority to finalize the terms of the massive trade deal. The coverage blackout continues a trend extending back to 2013.

… A Media Matters analysis of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News from August 1, 2013, through May 10, 2015, found that the programs completely ignored the trade negotiations and related policy debates. Only PBS NewsHour devoted substantive coverage to the TPP, with 14 total segments:

For And Against

Here is the scorecard on Fast Track and TPP.

In favor: The multinational corporate community; Wall Street; Republican congressional leaders John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and most Republicans; companies like Nike that outsource manufacturing and jobs, and for some reason incomprehensible reason President Obama.

Against: American manufacturers who are trying to employ Americans inside the United States, most Democrats, all progressives, all of organized labor (representing American working people), more than 2,000 grassroots organizations, “politicians” like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and anyone concerned about a process that pre-approves secret, corporate-dominated agreements before the public gets a chance to know what is in them.

Still silent: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

This fast track vote will be remembered by “the base” in the same way that the Iraq War vote was remembered. Politicians take note: Doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

Make Some Calls

While the Senate voting process begins today, it is not known how long it will take before a final vote occurs. Go to Stopfasttrack.com/ and make some phone calls to the Senate and express your opinion of fast track. Enter your phone number and follow directions. (You won’t need to hang up between calls.)

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