Hillary Clinton

There’s very little in policy terms that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree on. And even less that both putative nominees and Democrat Bernie Sanders would all agree on. But all nominally oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the secretly negotiated trade agreement that remains a dead letter until US Congress ratifies it.

Given that either Clinton or Trump will be president from January 20, the only chance for passage of the deal appears to lie with the “lame duck” Congress session between the election and January 3, when the newly elected House of Representatives will commence. The old House is scheduled to return to work on November 14, but may not sit for very long. Indeed, some hard-right GOP figures want to kill off lame-duck sessions permanently, in order to prevent a “zombie Congress” from acting without having to worry about the reaction of voters — and, this year, minimise the amount of time legislators could do anything of which Obama might approve. And in any event, congressional Republicans have made it clear that the TPP — which President Barack Obama regards as part of his legacy — shouldn’t be voted on before the election.

So is that the end of the TPP? Not so fast. Hillary Clinton may be signalling she’s up for a backflip on a lame-duck vote. And in doing so, she would hand Donald Trump a powerful weapon.

In April, Clinton declined to indicate she opposed the TPP outright (as Sanders had done) but said:

“I have three tests for any new trade agreements: do they (1) create American jobs, (2) raise wages, and (3) improve our national security? If the agreements won’t create good-paying jobs here at home and make our country stronger, I simply won’t support them. With respect to the flawed ISDS provisions in TPP — which I even wrote about in my book — I think we need to have a new paradigm for trade agreements that doesn’t give special rights to corporations that workers and NGOs don’t get.”

That doesn’t rule out a revised version of the TPP with amended investor-state dispute settlement provisions — but does appear to rule out Clinton supporting the current version. Then, in May, Clinton indicated she opposed the TPP outright.

Now that’s changing: Clinton supporters have blocked efforts by Sanders supporters to get the Democratic Party platform to oppose outright any vote during the lame duck session. And former Bill Clinton secretary for Labor Robert Reich revealed yesterday that a Clinton adviser had told him Clinton would not be opposing Obama’s efforts to get the TPP done and dusted before he leaves. The thinking in the Clinton camp, according to Reich’s acquaintance, is that Clinton has deniability if Obama can navigate the TPP through Congress before she becomes president.

All of which will be music to Donald Trump’s orange-tinted ears. In recent weeks, Trump has hardened his protectionist rhetoric: he not merely attacked the TPP as “rape of our country” but promised to renegotiate the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement or abandon it. He also accused Clinton of secretly wanting to pass the agreement, asserting in his splendidly Trumpesque manner:

“Hillary Clinton was totally for the TPP just a short while ago, but when she saw my stance, which is totally against, she was shamed into saying she would be against it too — but have no doubt, she will immediately approve it if it is put before her, guaranteed.”

Now Clinton appears to be doing her best to confirm Trump’s charge of secret support for the deal.

But there’s still a big question mark over whether the numbers would be there to pass the bill in either the House or the Senate. The bipartisan opposition to the TPP reflects two different concerns. Many Republicans don’t think the agreement does enough for US companies, even though it will permit them to use investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions to sue governments that take policy decisions that reduce their profits.

[New TPP leak reveals how we’re trading our sovereignty for cheap tariffs]

Big US pharmaceutical companies, in particular, are unhappy with the deal because, ironically, they claim it fails to give them enough protection in areas like biologics. Other Republicans, and large numbers of Democrats, argue like Trump that the deal with undermine US manufacturing and lead to job losses — an issue likely to only gain more prominence if Clinton leaves the Democrats exposed on the left on free trade.

High-profile former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank also warned that any attempt to pass the TPP during the lame duck session would:

“… further contaminate our already toxic political culture. And while sometimes the substantive value of succeeding justifies risking the downside of a failed attempt, winning in this case would do more damage than losing. Though they understandably don’t often say so explicitly, the pro-TPP triumvirate are among the political, economic, and intellectual leaders of the country who found the behavior of the voters this year as discouraging as many of the voters found the actions of their leaders.”

Under the terms of the agreement Obama secured with Republicans last year, Congress will have to start hearings on the agreement before the election, thereby breaking cover on an issue that neither side wants to be associated with before the polls on November 8.

Undermining the argument for rapid passage of the agreement is — despite the hype from governments about the value of the deal — the dearth of any evidence about its benefits. Even the US International Trade Commission admitted that the benefits of the TPP would be “small as a percentage of the overall size of the U.S. economy”, reaching just 0.23% of GDP after 15 years.

[Whoo boy, trade agreement to save Australian business a whopping … $150k]

The World Bank estimated the TPP would have virtually no economic growth benefits for countries like the US and Australia; an embarrassingly poor “analysis” of the benefits and costs of the deal for Australia by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade failed to show any significant benefits either. The government has repeatedly refused to allow any independent assessment of the agreement’s benefits and costs for Australia.

While Clinton appears to be encouraging Obama to rush the TPP through as soon as possible, the insidious consequences of the secretly negotiated trade deal might yet be thwarted by a now-unusual event — bipartisanship in US politics.

Peter Fray

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