Clinton Commits: No TPP, Fundamentally Rethink Trade Policies

Dave Johnson

Going into the West Virginia primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come out in opposition to a “lame duck” vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This takes her beyond her previous statements mildly opposing TPP. Clinton also made a strong statement criticizing our country’s trade agreements in general.

As reported in The Hill, in “Clinton opposes TPP vote in the lame-duck session,” Clinton replied to a questionnaire from the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, which consists of more than 25 labor, environmental and human rights organizations. When asked, “If elected President, would you oppose holding a vote on the TPP during the ‘lame duck’ session before you take office?” she replied, “I have said I oppose the TPP agreement — and that means before and after the election.”

There has been concern that TPP will come up for a vote in the lame-duck session of Congress after the election, and before the next Congress is sworn in. This special session enables votes with little accountability to the public. Members who have been voted out can vote in ways that help them get lobbying jobs and members who were re-elected with corporate money can reward their donors.

A statement from the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign describing Clinton’s responses, explains the importance of Clinton opposing a “lame duck” vote,

“The Democratic candidates agree that attempting to sneak the TPP through during lame duck is completely and totally inappropriate,” said Michael Shannon, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. “Popular opposition to job-killing trade agreements is at an all time high. The votes clearly do not exist to pass the TPP before the election, and TPP proponents’ plan to try to get just-voted-out-of-office, looking-for-corporate-lobby-work Congress members to rubber stamp it after the election is something that more-and-more politicians are speaking out against.”

The Washington Post explains, in “Clinton does not back Obama trade vote in postelection congressional session,” that this will make it more difficult for President Obama to push TPP through the lame-duck session:

Opponents of the pact said Clinton’s response on the questionnaire, coming ahead of Oregon’s Democratic primary on May 17, represents a more definitive statement of opposition to the 12-nation Pacific Rim accord than she has given before. It could present new hurdles for the Obama administration, which is viewing a likely brief session of Congress after the Nov. 8 election as its last chance to get the deal ratified by lawmakers before the president leaves office in January.

Clinton’s statement helps, but there are still concerns about the TPP being pushed through after the election, and the administration and Republican leaders in Congress are working on this. The Washington Post again:

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that administration officials are in contact with Republican leaders in Congress over the timing of a potential vote.

“The political calculation I would acknowledge is complicated. It doesn’t fall cleanly along party lines,” Earnest said. “So we’re going to work in bipartisan fashion to develop a strategy that will lead to success.”

Boosts Clinton’s Credibility On Trade

Clinton has suffered from a credibility problem, especially on the issue of trade. Clinton made no clear statement supporting or opposing TPP during the “fast-track” fight over trade promotion authority, which “greased the skids” for the passage of TPP. Then, in October, just before the first Democratic debate, she “took the issue off the table” with a mild statement opposing TPP.

Clinton’s October statement used wording that people felt left lots of wiggle room to change positions later. She said “As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.” This left “as of tomorrow” open if the agreement wasn’t “what she had learned.” She said, “I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.” This left her open to support TPP if it was changed a bit so she could claim the bar was higher. She also refused to lobby members of Congress to vote against TPP.

The mild wording left the door open for people to question her commitment and credibility. This may have been in order not to alienate the “donor class” and it may have been because she supports “free trade.” The result was that not even people like the head of the Chamber of Commerce believed her, saying he was sure she would turn around and support TPP once the election was over.

Her hedged position also left her open to criticism from opposing candidate Bernie Sanders. Her surprise loss in the Michigan primary was partly attributed to her low credibility on trade issues. So Clinton strengthened her wording a bit for the Ohio and other “rust belt” primaries, but the damage was done.

Now A Clear Commitment

In her most recent statement, Clinton not only committed to opposing TPP after the election but gave a very strong statement about our trade agreements in general, saying, “I’m not interested in tinkering around the margins of our trade policy. I think we need a fundamental rethink of how we approach trade deals going forward.” From the questionnaire:

Across all of our policies, American workers and American jobs have to come first. And one area where we’ve gotten this balance wrong over the years is trade. Looking back over the past decades, as globalization picked up steam, there’s no doubt that the benefits of trade have not been as widely enjoyed as many predicted. Corporations may have won, but many workers lost. They lost their jobs, and they lost their sense of purpose. Cheaper goods are no substitute for that. So America has to do better.

I’ve laid out a three – part test for any trade agreement to earn my support: it must (1) create American jobs, (2) raise wages, and (3) improve our national security. My approach to trade would be to establish and enforce fair rules so that our workers compete on a level playing field and countries don’t race to the bottom on labor, the environment, and so much else. And we can bring others along in having higher labor, environmental, and other standards.

Clinton’s statement that “we need a fundamental rethink of how we approach trade deals” is a strong statement, going beyond simply opposing TPP. “It is critical that we address labor protections and ensure that human rights are protected, as well as health, environmental, and consumer safety issues in any new trade agreements,” her response said.

These are important distinctions that show her position is now clearly on the side of those opposing not just TPP but the way our trade agreements have been used to move jobs out of the country, drive down wages and break what power working people once had in the economy. She has not left herself wiggle room on a TPP vote, and she did not hedge herself between the interests of workers and those of the “donor class” and trade policies have not worked for working people.

Sanders Driving The Issue

This clear statement of position shows the value of the Sanders campaign. His clear opposition to TPP and our current trade regime finally forced Clinton to go on the record with a clear commitment opposing TPP and a solid criticism of our country’s trade policies.

This demonstrates the value of contested primaries. It also shows that Sanders has been able to drive the national discussion in a way that benefits working people. His discussion of student debt and proposals for extending public education by four years so public colleges and universities will be tuition-free has brought record support from younger voters.

Sanders forced the issue and Clinton has committed to opposing TPP along with her strong statement on the need to rethink our trade policies in general. Whether Clinton is secretly a “free-trader” and is as some suspect only making these statements for votes, or personally really believes that the trade agreements and overall policy has hurt working people and the economy and only hedged in order to appeal to the donor class does not matter. The commitment locks her into the policy, so it will be the same either way.

Democratic Platform Needs A Strong Anti-TPP Plank

One would think that blocking TPP should be a slam dunk now that all three remaining presidential candidates – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – have come out strongly against the agreement. Unfortunately, the unaccountable postelection “lame duck” session is not a normal session, and the will of the public may not prevail.

The Democratic convention can pass a strong platform plank expressing the will of the party, and adding enforcement provisions against any Democrats who might vote for TPP in the lame duck or after. This could include a resolution to deny party funds and endorsements in coming elections.

A strong statement in the Democratic Party platform will also help Democratic House and Senate candidates compete in their own races this fall. At the top of the Republican ticket, Donald Trump might be opposed to TPP and other one-sided trade deals, but most of the rest of the Republican party is just fine with trade deals that move jobs out of the country so that executives and Wall Street shareholders can pocket the wage differential.

A strong platform plank makes a party-wide statement. It gives all Democrats ammunition against their opponents who might disagree with Trump and favor the TPP and free trade. It allows Democrats at all levels to campaign saying that Democrats, as a party, stand behind working people.

Clinton’s statement helps. Asking members of Congress to vote against TPP would help more. A strong Democratic Party platform plank would help, too. We need to stamp TPP out and start fresh with a fair trade process that brings representatives of labor, environmental, consumer, human rights and other “stakeholder” groups to the negotiating table along with representatives of business.

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