Saturday, December 14, 2013

Editorial: No ‘Fast Track’ for Secret Trade Deal

The Obama administration, its corporate partners and a dozen Pacific nations have been negotiating behind closed doors on a massive trade agreement that, among other things, would allow corporations to challenge national, state and local laws if they believe regulations put profits at risk. Congress hasn’t seen the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which hasn’t been finished yet, but the White House has requested that Congress proceed with granting “fast track” authority that would commit to an up-or-down vote on the deal with limited review and no possibility of amendment.

Congress should not approve fast track review for a trade deal that has been negotiated in secret. Dave Johnson noted at Campaign for America’s Future ( that the agreement itself is also about getting democracy and government power out of the way of the big corporations. “It actually sets (certain) corporate (‘investor’) interests above the law of any country. For example, word has leaked that TPP negotiators are arguing over whether to prevent countries from running anti-smoking campaigns, because this interferes with tobacco-company profits. One side says this is going too far and they should “carve out” tobacco from the agreement, the other side says carving out tobacco sets a precedent of allowing governments to protect their citizens from other things corporations might want to profit from. This should tell you all you need to know about why Fast Track must not pass, enabling them to push TPP through with no changes.”

Talks on the TPP will resume in January, after the 12 prospective members in December gave up on meeting Washington’s year-end deadline for a deal, Agence France-Presse reported Dec. 10. The TPP is being negotiated by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. They make up 40% of the global economy and other countries may join the pact later.

One of the sticking points has been the US negotiators’ insistence, backed by the powerful pharmaceuticals industry, that drug companies get longer patent protection for a new class of drugs called “biologics” which are developed from living tissue, AFP reported.

Drug firms say this is necessary to allow them to recoup investments and continue research into fresh cures. But critics such as the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders say such patent protection would restrict access to cheaper generic drugs for millions of poor people.

Documents leaked to the Huffington Post suggest that concerns about the Obama administration’s push for corporate power to challenge regulations are shared by some of those who are negotiating across the table from the US. HuffPost’s Zach Carter quoted a memo from another country charging the US had “shown no flexibility on its proposal” for investor dispute tribunals; Carter reported that with such language, “companies could challenge an even broader array of rules” than under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal that allowed companies like Exxon Mobil and Dow to fight Canadian rules on issues from drilling to drug patents. The same memo said the US “shows zero flexibility” on its push for restrictions on bank regulation, and had reintroduced a widely-opposed proposal to restrict governments’ negotiations to push down drug prices. A USTR spokesperson told Carter that “some elements” in those documents were “outdated, others totally inaccurate,” but did not specify which.

The Teamsters set out key fair-trade objectives three years ago that the proposed trade deal had to meet to earn the union’s support. They are:

If the Tea Party Republicans really were a populist movement, as many of their advocates claim, progressive Democrats would be able to make a coalition with them to stop these trade deals that interfere with American and local sovereignty. But we don’t expect the teabaggers to provide the sort of obstruction to “free trade” that they did against extension of jobless benefits. After all, the Tea Party has never showed much concern for workers’ rights, environmental protection or sustainable agriculture — indeed, the original call for action in January 2009 was not a reaction against the banks that abused the mortgage financing system, but instead focused anger on homebuyers — particularly minorities — who bought homes but were unable to keep up their mortgage payments. And one of the main sponsors of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, run a petrochemical refining and distribution empire that would be a beneficiary of the dismantling of environmental rules by special trade tribunals, so they don’t have to get approval of the EPA or other state and federal agencies to pollute the air, water or other natural resources. Certainly Democrats in Congress should have no part of this chicanery.

Skinflint Budget Deal Accomplishes Little

Congress’ top two budget chiefs on Dec. 10 produced a bipartisan agreement that would set spending levels for two years and fix some spending cuts required by the sequester.

The deal announced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) would establish spending at $1.012 trillion in 2014 and $1.014 trillion in 2015 — up from the $967 billion required by the across-the-board sequester cuts. It provides for about $63 billion in sequester relief, divided equally among defense and non-defense programs.

The deal offsets the sequester relief with a mix of targeted spending cuts and non-tax revenues via higher government fees and sales, totaling $85 billion over 10 years. That means it would reduce the deficit by about $23 billion. The revenue raisers include higher federal worker contributions to pensions and higher airline ticket fees. In an effort to secure conservative support, none of the revenues come from the tax code. The budget deal doesn’t resolve the impasse over the farm bill and the House’s $40 billion cut in food assistance that would drop as many as six million poor Americans from the anti-hunger rolls.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the budget deal a “very modest proposal that will prevent a disastrous government shutdown. On the other hand, it goes nowhere close to addressing the enormous crises facing this country, including the expiration of unemployment benefits, rebuilding infrastructure, creating millions of jobs, investing in clean energy and early childhood education.”

The biggest win in the budget deal, Sanders said, was that progressives rallied the American people to stop the proposal to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. But the deal still leaves 1.3 million Americans losing their long-term unemployment benefits three days after Christmas, expected to scrounge for work despite an official unemployment rate of 7% and an underemployment rate of 13.2%.

Democrats said they would continue to push for an extension of unemployment benefits in a separate bill — but that initiative has little chance of passage when many Republicans, including House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), think aid to the unemployed encourages the jobless to stop looking for work. (Extension of jobless benefits would cost $26 billion next year — or about the same amount that the Republican government shutdown cost in October.)

The budget deal likely will be one of the last bills to clear Congress before it adjourns for the year. That leaves those 1.3 million long-term unemployed on their own. And this skinflint budget is the entirely foreseeable result of giving Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. Until Republicans fear the electoral backlash of the unemployed, and the other working classes that the GOP trashes, the least among us will continue to be cast adrift in favor of the corporate sponsors masquerading as “job creators.” — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2014
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