Fact-checking Froman: The Top 10 Myths Used by Obama’s Top Trade Official (re U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman)

Public Citizen's Eyes on Trade Blog. Feb 19, 2014.  U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman tried in a speech yesterday to defend the Obama administration’s beleaguered trade policy agenda: the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) pacts and an unpopular push to Fast Track those sweeping deals through Congress.  The list of those publicly opposing the Fast Track push includes most House Democrats, a sizeable bloc of House Republicans, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and 62% of the U.S. voting public

In attempt to justify the administration’s polemical pacts, Froman resorted to some statements of dubious veracity, ranging from half-truths to outright mistruths.  To set the record straight, here are the top 10 Froman fables, followed by inconvenient facts that undercut his assertions and help explain the widespread opposition to TPP, TAFTA, and Fast Track.

1. Access to affordable medicines

  • Froman:  “[In TPP] we’re working to find better ways to foster affordable access to medicines…” 

2. Income inequality

  • Froman:  “Our trade policy is a major lever for encouraging investment here at home in manufacturing, agriculture and services, creating more high-paying jobs and combating wage stagnation and income inequality.”
  • Fact:  First, study after study has shown no correlation between a country’s willingness to sign on to TPP-style pacts and its ability to attract foreign investment, casting doubt on Froman’s promise of a job-creating investment influx.  But more importantly, Froman opted to ignore a big part of why U.S. workers are currently enduring such acute levels of “wage stagnation and income inequality.”  He did not mention the academic consensus that status quo U.S. trade policy, which the TPP would expand, has contributed significantly to the historic rise in U.S. income inequality.  The only debate has been the extent of trade’s inequality-exacerbating impact.  A recent study estimates that trade flows have been responsible for more than 90% of the rise in income inequality occurring since 1995, a period characterized by trade pacts that have incentivized the offshoring of decently-paid U.S. jobs and forced U.S. workers to compete with poorly-paid workers abroad.  How can the TPP, a proposed expansion of the trade policies that have exacerbated inequality, now be expected to ameliorate inequality? 

3. Internet freedom

  • Froman:  “I’ve heard some critics suggest that TPP is in some way related to SOPA [the Stop Online Piracy Act].  Don’t believe it.  It just isn’t true….”
  • Fact:  Froman’s attempt to assuage fears of a TPP-provided backdoor to SOPA-like limits on Internet freedom would be more convincing if a) he offered details beyond “it just isn’t true,” or b) if his statement didn’t directly contradict leaked TPP texts.  A November leak of the draft TPP intellectual property chapter revealed, for example, that the U.S. is proposing draconian copyright liability rules for Internet service providers that, like SOPA, threaten to curtail Internet users’ free speech.  Indeed, while nearly all other TPP countries have agreed to a proposed provision to limit Internet service providers’ liability, the United States is one of two countries to oppose such flexibility.

4. Corporate trade advisors

  • Froman:  “Our cleared advisors do include representatives from the private sector… [but] they [also] include representatives from every major labor union, public health groups…environmental groups…as well as development NGOs...” 
  • Froman:  “I’m pleased to announce that we are upgrading our advisory system to provide a new forum for experts on issues like public health, development and consumer safety.  A new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, or PTAC, will join the Labor Advisory Committee and the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committees to provide cross-cutting platforms for input in the negotiations.”
  • Fact:  Froman’s announcement of a new “public interest” committee – a response to the outcry over the vast imbalance of this corporate-dominated advisory system – offers too little, too late. Amid a slew of advisory committees exclusively devoted to narrow industry interests, the “public interest” now gets a single committee?  And how much influence will this committee have in changing the many core TPP provisions that threaten the public interest, now that the administration hopes to conclude TPP negotiations, which have been going on for four years, in the coming months?  Proposed as a TPP afterthought, this new committee comes across as window-dressing, not a genuine restructuring of a system that gives corporations insider access to an otherwise closed trade negotiation process.

5. Fast Track

  • Froman:  Fast Track is “the mechanism by which Congress has worked with every administration since 1974 to define its marching orders on what to negotiate…”  We can use Fast Track to “require[] future administrations to require labor, environmental and innovation and access to medicines [standards]…”
  • Fact:  Under Fast Track, Congress has not given the administration “marching orders” so much as marching suggestions.  Though Congress inserted non-binding “negotiating objectives” for U.S. pacts into past Fast Track bills – a model replicated in the unpopular current legislation to revive Fast Track for the TPP and TAFTA – Democratic and GOP presidents alike have historically ignored negotiating objectives included in Fast Track.  For example, Froman stated that Fast Track could be used to require particular labor standards.  But while the 1988 Fast Track used for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) included a negotiating objective on labor standards, neither pact included such terms.  The history shows that Fast-Tracked pacts that ignore Congress’ priorities can still be signed by the president (locking in the agreements’ contents) before being sent to Congress for an expedited, ex-post vote in which amendments are prohibited and debate is restricted. 

6. Currency manipulation

  • Froman:  In response to a question of whether currency manipulation is being addressed in the TPP: “We take the issue of exchange rates or currency manipulation very seriously as a matter of policy…”
  • Fact:  U.S. TPP negotiators have not even initiated negotiations on the inclusion of binding disciplines on currency manipulation, much less secured other countries’ commitment to those disciplines.  The U.S. inaction on currency in the TPP contrasts with letters signed by 230 Representatives (a majority) and 60 Senators (a supermajority) demanding the inclusion of currency manipulation disciplines in the TPP.  Unless U.S. negotiators take currency manipulation more “seriously,” the TPP may be dead on arrival in the U.S. Congress. 

7. Labor rights

  • Froman:  “In TPP we’re seeking to include disciplines requiring adherence to fundamental labor rights, including the right to organize and to collectively bargain, protections from child and forced labor and employment discrimination.” 
  • Fact:  The TPP includes Vietnam, a country that bans independent unions.  And Vietnam was recently red-listed by the Department of Labor as one of just four countries that use both child labor and forced labor in apparel production.  While Froman acknowledged such “serious challenges,” he did not explain how they would be resolved.  Is Vietnam going to change its fundamental labor laws so as to allow independent unions?  Is the government going to revamp its enforcement mechanisms so as to eliminate the country’s widespread child and forced labor?  Barring such sweeping changes, will the U.S. still sign on to a TPP that includes Vietnam?  

8. Environmental protection

  • Froman:  “We’re asking our trading partners to commit to effectively enforce environmental laws…”
  • Fact:  While Froman touted several provisions in the draft TPP environment chapter as requiring enforcement of domestic environmental laws, he didn’t mention the draft TPP investment chapter that would empower foreign corporations to directly challenge those laws before international tribunals if they felt the laws undermined their expected future profits.  Corporations have been increasingly using these extreme “investor-state” provisions under existing U.S. “free trade” agreements (FTAs) to attack domestic environmental policies, including a moratorium on fracking, renewable energy programs, and requirements to clean up oil pollution and industrial toxins.  Tribunals comprised of three private attorneys have already ordered taxpayers to pay hundreds of millions to foreign firms for such safeguards, arguing that they violate sweeping FTA-granted investor privileges.  Froman’s call for countries to enforce their environmental laws sounds hollow under a TPP that would simultaneously empower corporations to “sue” countries for said enforcement.

9. TPP secrecy

  • Froman:  “Let me make one thing absolutely clear: any member of Congress can see the negotiating text anytime they request it.”
  • Fact:  For three full years negotiations, members of Congress were not able to see the bracketed negotiating text of the TPP, a deal that would rewrite broad swaths of domestic U.S. policies.  Only after mounting outcry among members of Congress and the public about this astounding degree of secrecy did the administration begin sharing the negotiating text with members of Congress last June.  Even so, the administration still only provides TPP text access under restrictive terms for many members of Congress, such as requiring that technical staff not be present and forbidding the member of Congress from taking detailed notes or keeping a copy of the text.  Meanwhile, the U.S. public remains shut out, with the Obama administration refusing to make public any part of the TPP negotiating text.  Such secrecy falls short of the standard of transparency exhibited by the Bush administration, which published online the full negotiating text of the last similarly sweeping U.S. pact (the Free Trade Area of the Americas). 

10. Exports under FTAs

  • Froman:  “Under President Obama, U.S. exports have increased by 50%...”  “Today the post-crisis surge in exports we experienced over the last few years is beginning to recede.  And that’s why we’re working to open markets in the Asia-Pacific and in Europe...”
  • Fact:  U.S. exports grew by a grand total of 0% last year under the current “trade” pact model.   The year before that, they grew by 2%.  Most of the export growth Froman cites came early in Obama’s tenure as a predictable rebound from the global recession that followed the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  At the abysmal export growth rate seen since then, we will not reach Obama’s stated goal to double 2009’s exports until 2054, 40 years behind schedule.  Froman ironically uses this export growth drop-off to argue for more-of-the-same trade policy (e.g. the TPP and TAFTA).  The data simply does not support the oft-parroted pitch that we need TPP-style FTAs to boost exports.  Indeed, the overall growth of U.S. exports to countries that are not FTA partners has exceeded U.S. export growth to countries that are FTA partners by 30 percent over the last decade.  That’s not a solid basis from which to argue, in the name of exports, for yet another FTA. 

            

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