Washington – The battle lines drawn over a proposed U.S. trade pact with 11 Pacific Rim nations are running straight through Connecticut, which has emerged as the home of some of the proposed agreement’s most ardent supporters and bitter foes.
Like many other battles, the struggle over the proposed pact, which for now excludes Asian economic giant China, pits organized labor against business interests.
It has split Democrats, with President Obama and key Democratic congressional leaders supporting the pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, at the front lines of a Democratic revolt against it.
Pact supporters say they can’t negotiate an agreement unless Congress gives the White House “fast-track” authority that would prevent any changes to a final deal and permit only an up or down vote on it.
A fast-track bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee late Wednesday, setting up a vote in the full Senate next month. A similar bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee late Thursday, with Connecticut Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, joining a majority of Democrats voting against it.
Larson said he “understood the challenges” faced by the lawmakers who crafted the fast-track bill, which would help Obama negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements over the next six years, “but it was clear to me their efforts fell woefully short.”
“Enactment at this time would not be appropriate,” Larson said.
The bill faces stronger headwinds in the House than in the Senate because of opposition from DeLauro and other Democrats, as well as some Republicans, who don’t want to give Obama a foreign policy victory or who oppose the trade pact on libertarian principles.
“I believe we can defeat it,” said DeLauro, who has been busy lobbying House Democrats.
To DeLauro, there is little hope of making the trade deal acceptable.
“Despite claims that the bill…contains strong protections against labor, currency, environmental and human rights abuses, they are unenforceable,” she said.
Organized labor says the proposed trade pact will do what they contend the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and other trade agreements have done — move U.S. jobs offshore.
Lori Pelletier, executive secretary of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said Obama and other TPP supporters are “putting the cart before the horse” in hoping the agreement will result in labor and environmental reforms in the Asian countries that sign it.
“What we should be saying is, ‘if you want to trade with us, you should be raising your standards,'” she said.
One thing that has helped opponents attack the trade pact is that the agreement is not being negotiated openly. The public is largely unable to access its contents, other than leaked portions of the proposed deal published by WikiLeaks.
When Congress votes on fast track, or Trade Promotion Authority, the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership won’t be known. But if fast track is granted, and the Obama administration succeeds in striking a deal, details will be revealed before lawmakers are asked to cast a final vote on it.
Rather have jobs
Pelletier said that some of Connecticut’s strongest supporters of the proposed trade pact, which include United Technologies and General Electric, “don’t need the trade pact to sell their products overseas.”
She said the support for the trade pact is based on the belief of large companies that it will protect their overseas operations from expropriation.
But General Electric, an early booster of the trade pact, testified in 2013 to the Senate Finance Committee that it would offer a long list of benefits to American companies. Those included “ensuring a level playing field with state-owned enterprises; promoting enhanced transparency; promoting easier and faster clearance of goods and movement of people; eliminating tariffs on manufactured goods…and fostering 21st-century intellectual property disciplines, in particular for the protection of trade secrets.”
DeLauro may be the strongest opponent of the TPP in the Connecticut congressional delegation, but she is not the only one.
Besides Larson, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he’s “leaning a pretty hard ‘no’,” on the TPP after a string of companies in his district, including Amerbelle Textiles, MeadVestvaco and Unilever, were forced to shutter, at least in part because of foreign competition.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he “won’t have an opinion until I actually look at (the TPP).”
Opponents of the trade pact say the Asian nations that would be involved, including Japan and North Korea, have a history of devaluing their currencies to the detriment of U.S. exports. Courtney said the TPP would not address that problem.
The National Association of Manufacturers supports the TPP. But opponents say the manufacturing industry is likely to be the most vulnerable if the trade pact is adopted, a potential political liability for those who support it.
Workers who lose their jobs to imports are eligible for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides a variety of re-employment services, including training, help looking for in jobs and other benefits
“When I tell (displaced workers), ‘Hey, I got you TAA,’ they are looking at you like, ‘I’d much rather have my job,’” Courtney said.
To put pressure on Democrats like Courtney, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the head of the House Ways and Means Committee, put out a list of companies and business associations in each state that back the TPP.
In Connecticut the list included the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the MetroHartford Alliance, the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce and the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.
“This levels the playing field with other nations and strengthens our manufacturing industry,” said Joe Brennan, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
He disputed claims that only big companies like United Technologies or GE would benefit.
“It helps small manufacturers and mid-sized manufacturers,” he said.
Brennan said he had not spoken to members of the Connecticut delegation about the issue and indicated it would be difficult to win their support.
“Perhaps if I can free up some time before a vote (on the trade pact), I will,” he said.
Brennan said he wished there were more support for the TPP.
“I think it’s important for the United States to speak with one voice,” he said.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership has become an early issue in the presidential campaign.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who helped her husband, former President Bill Clinton, battle DeLauro over NAFTA, is hedging about her support for the pact, saying any agreement must produce jobs, increase prosperity, and strengthen American security.
A potential Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, is against the trade pact.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator considering a presidential run, possibly as a Democrat, called it “a disaster for American workers.”
Meanwhile, declared GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, support the TPP, as does former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is considering a run for the White House.