Hillary Clinton took a predictable path in opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership. The former secretary of state declared this week as the negotiations concluded: “ ... based on what I know so far, I can't support this agreement.” Remember 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama flirted during the Ohio primary with renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement? That played well to many Democratic voters. Soon, the matter faded. Neither Obama nor Clinton has raised the subject much the past seven years.
Three years ago, Clinton described the Trans Pacific Partnership as setting “the gold standard in trade agreements to open, free, transparent, fair trade.” Now it is the presidential campaign season, and in seeking the White House, Clinton has been reinforcing her left flank.
So which is it, “gold standard” or something undeserving of support?
The trade deal has been a decade in the works, involving the United States and 11 other countries along the Pacific Rim, comprising 40 percent of the global economy and one-third of world trade. It makes substantial advances in reducing tariffs and other trade barriers. American farmers gain much wider access to markets. So do makers of auto products and communication technology.
One area of clear American advantage is the service industry. The agreement opens the way to such strengths as finance, engineering, education and software. It pares back obstacles to small businesses entering markets overseas. It sets up protections for Internet traffic and e-commerce. These are all avenues to creating export-driven jobs, which pay at higher levels on average.
The agreement advances worker protections, requiring countries to comply with the standards established by the International Labor Organization, including the opportunity to form unions and protections against child labor. The environmental standards are similarly higher, with provisions to protect wildlife and curb the damage from fishery subsidies.
Then, there is the strategic component, or so-called pivot, the agreement serving as a counterweight to expanding Chinese influence in the region.
Assessing almost any complex trade agreement requires calculating its overall impact — plus or minus in total. In that way, for all the advances, there are problematic provisions.
They come mostly in the form of writing complex rules for corporate interests. Take the pharmaceutical industry seeking extended intellectual property protection for drugs made from biotechnology. They sought 12 years. They got a minimum of five. The worry is, even the shorter time will slow access to cheaper generic drugs.
For decades, companies operating overseas have been protected against governments confiscating their property or otherwise discriminating against their operations. Of late, some have begun to exploit such provisions to evade regulations and other policies. Does the Trans Pacific Partnership do too much to accommodate these corporate efforts?
It is revealing that the agreement bars Big Tobacco from taking such steps. That suggests the door is open to others challenging regulations they deem as unduly cutting into profit margins.
Congress has three months to have its say, up or down. That gives the Obama White House time to show skeptical Democrats, in particular, that whatever the shortcomings in the trade agreement, the benefits are greater. The president is helped by a letter from 14 former Democratic governors, including Richard Celeste of Ohio, supporting the deal. Practically everyone sees value in opening markets. What may be harder to see is why favorable rules for corporate interests do not ruin the entire package.