Updated 6:17 p.m. Jan. 12
Washington – Rep. Rosa DeLauro is on a collision course with President Obama and some of Connecticut’s largest companies over a proposed trade deal with 12 countries on the Pacific Rim from Chile to Japan.
DeLauro, D-3rd District, has become a leading opponent of the president’s plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, objecting to plans to “ram the trade agreement through Congress with little debate or transparency,” and saying it would destroy American jobs and threaten food safety and environmental regulations.
“Trade deals go well beyond trade,” DeLauro said at a press conference with labor and environmental leaders last week that kicked off a campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Obama is asking Congress for authority to “fast track” the agreement, which means lawmakers would not be able to amend it and could only vote up or down on the trade deal.
Trade advocates argue that fast track is needed to assure trading partners that a final deal won’t be changed after years of negotiations.
But, DeLauro said, “that is simply not acceptable.”
“We need to be able to scrutinize the trade deal page by page,” she said.
Other members of the Connecticut’s congressional delegation have expressed concerns about the trade pact’s possible effects on jobs and want a series of protections. They also oppose giving the president fast-track authority without certain limits. But they are largely undecided on how they will finally vote on the trade pact, and they have not have not staked out as strong a position on the TPP as DeLauro has.
Obama asked Congress to grant him fast-track authority two years ago, but efforts stalled. The last time Congress renewed the White House’s authority to fast track a trade deal was in 2002. That authority expired in 2007.
Reminiscent of NAFTA
The fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership closely mirrors the political battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement, with backers and opponents of the new trade pact staking out much the same positions they did 20 years ago.
DeLauro was in the front lines of the fight against NAFTA too. In an interview, she said NAFTA helped speed the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the nation and about 96,000 manufacturing jobs in Connecticut over the last decade. She also said NAFTA has led to depressed wages for American workers. The Trans-Pacific Partnership could do the same, DeLauro said.
The TPP’s supporters say the notion that the trade agreement would hurt the U.S. economy is a myth. They argue it would allow American companies access to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets and prove a counterweight to China’s economic influence in the region.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is America’s best chance to ensure the United States isn’t stuck on the outside looking in as Asia-Pacific nations pursue new trade accords among themselves,” said a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report.
Speaking at a Business Roundtable meeting in the White House last month, Obama said, “There are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP.”
As far as bucking the president on the issue, DeLauro said, “I have not voted for fast track for any president, Democrat or Republican.”
“My critics will say, ‘DeLauro votes with the president 90 percent of the time,’ but I disagree with the president on this and that’s okay,” she said.
She’s also fighting against the interests of some of Connecticut’s largest companies.
United Technologies Corp.— which owns Sikorsky, a company in DeLauro’s district — and General Electric belong to the U.S. Business Coalition for TPP, a group of the nation’s largest corporations and business associations that are lobbying for the trade deal.
“We are a company that derives more than 60 percent of its revenues from overeas sales,” said UTC spokesman Marty Hauser. It makes sense for UTC to favor legislation that enables negotiating trade agreements that “open overseas markets further to U.S. goods, services, and investment,” he said.
That coalition also includes Pfizer, which has a large plant in Connecticut; the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents Norwalk-based Diageo; and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which has many members in the state. Even the Motion Picture Association of America, whose chief lobbyist is former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, belongs to the coalition.
To DeLauro, that doesn’t matter.
“I am not here for special interests,” DeLauro said. “I am here for working men and women.”
As in her fight against NAFTA, DeLauro’s efforts are strongly backed by organized labor, which argues that by lowering trade barriers, the TPP will make it easier for American companies to move overseas and export goods made there into the United States.
“The AFL-CIO doesn’t just oppose fast track, we’re going to fight actively to kill it,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka.
A looming clash in Congress
DeLauro said her opposition to the trade agreement began in 2011, when she realized it would let in tainted food from overseas, like a 200-ton shipment of food from Vietnam that was rejected under today’s trade laws because of high levels of pesticides and other chemicals.
She said she called the U.S. Trade Representative’s office about her food safety concerns, but “heard nothing back.”
She tried again the next year. “No response,” DeLauro said.
In a 2013 Agriculture Committee hearing, DeLauro asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack what the USDA could do to stop dangerous food exports under the TTP.
“He had no answer,” DeLauro said.
A USTR official said DeLauro and the Obama administration “have had extensive engagement regarding food safety and trade,” with most of the contacts occurring last year.
The official said DeLauro “participated in several meetings with USTR Ambassador (Michael) Froman on TPP, where their conversations included a dedicated discussion of food safety issues.” He also said USTR staff and the congresswoman’s staff also have had meetings on food safety.
New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he will push for fast-track legislation to be considered in the next couple of months. That will touch off a contentious battle.
Many Republicans support the president on the issue. Most Democrats, but not all of them, don’t.
The Connecticut congressional delegation may split over the trade pact.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he is undecided about how he will vote, and must review the fast-track legislation before he makes up his mind.
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said he would not vote for a simple extension of the “outdated and irresponsible 2002 fast track,” and wants protection for American workers and other guarantees.
“I understand the president’s position that the U.S. cannot simply turn our backs on the Asia-Pacific region without a competitor like China taking over the markets,” Larson said. “However, this does not mean that we can enter into just any agreement. We must ensure that the actions we take will not further disadvantage our workers, will create good jobs here at home and will ensure proper labor and environmental protections around the globe.”
That may be hard to negotiate. “Side letters” that tried to help U.S. workers and U.S. interests, like American sugar growers, were attached to NAFTA. But their effectiveness has been questioned.
DeLauro said one such agreement, which established a Trade Adjustment Assistance program that helps retrain workers who lost their jobs to NAFTA-fueled imports, are “useless” and “laughable.”
“It’s like burial insurance,” she said of the retraining program.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, said, “Trade is vital to Connecticut’s economy, and we should continue to look for opportunities to increase the sale of Connecticut products overseas.”
“I have heard from manufacturers and small businesses about both the opportunities and the challenges of international trade,” Esty said. “American workers are the most productive in the world, which is why a truly fair trade policy would add American jobs and help raise, not lower, American wages.”
But like Larson, Esty said any new trade agreement must protect American workers and the environment and contain other safeguards.
Elizabeth Donovan, press secretary for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said “the congressman remains concerned about a range of issues related to the TPP, including ongoing currency manipulation in the region and the potential impacts of this agreement on the American textile and dairy industries.”
Esty and Courtney were among 151 signers of a letter sent to Obama in November – an effort organized by DeLauro – that expressed concern over the lack of adequate congressional consultation during TPP negotiations and opposing fast track. Larson and Himes did not sign the letter.
DeLauro and other NAFTA opponents managed to stall that trade pact, but former President Bill Clinton eventually prevailed in winning congressional approval of the deal.
DeLauro said she’s confident the “unprecedented coalition” opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership will stop a new fast-track bill this year, as it did in the last Congress.
“I believe we have a chance at defeating it again,” she said.