U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) voted for NAFTA and all but three NAFTA-style trade deals since then. But he’s in agreement with organized labor about one thing: Trade negotiations shouldn’t take place in secret.
In May, Wyden introduced the Congressional Oversight Over Trade Negotiations Act, which would require U.S. trade negotiators to share documents with members of Congress and their staffs. The bill, co-sponsored by Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and two other senators, was provoked by the refusal of U.S. trade negotiators to divulge any details about negotiations under way to create the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a NAFTA-style trade deal that could eventually cover the entire Pacific Rim.
On Aug. 13, Wyden brought the issue home with a “listening session” about TPP at a federal building in Northeast Portland. At the meeting, Wyden heard from an invited panel and from constituents. Most of the panel consisted of corporate and industry representatives who support TPP, but most of the crowd was critical.
Panelist Arthur Stamoulis, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, drew the biggest applause.
“Despite 13 major rounds of negotiations and requests by hundreds of thousands of Americans, the U.S. trade representative still refuses to tell the public what he’s been proposing in our name,” Stamoulis said. “His office has also indicated that they have no intention of releasing any text until the negotiations have concluded and the pact is signed, at which point it will be very difficult to effect any kind of change.”
“That lack of transparency is anathema to democratic policy-making, but it’s also a rollback,” Stamoulis said. “Even the Bush Administration published the bracketed text of the Free Trade Area of the Americas [a multi-lateral trade deal that failed to get off the ground].”
Wyden agreed with Stamoulis: “Something’s way out of whack when special interest groups can … get access to the whole thing, and have more access to it than elected officials and the American people.”
“Too often trade agreements have only benefitted a few multinational corporations,” said panelist Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. “And local businesses, local workers, and workers in our trade partner countries often end up worse off.”
If organized labor was looking for allies in opposing NAFTA-style deals like TPP, it didn’t have to look far: The auditorium was packed with about 200 people who’d turned out during the workday and waited in a long line to get through a security check to attend. Most of them were mobilized by environmental organizations, and were there to oppose export of coal and liquid natural gas to Asia. Their opposition was based on concerns over local environmental impacts, as well as the contribution to global climate change that could come from additional fossil fuel burning.
But opposition to natural gas exports got a business argument as well at the meeting. Pam Barrow, an energy expert representing the Northwest food processing industry, said the region’s industries benefit from cheap domestic natural gas. Asians pay six times as much for natural gas. Barrow argued, and Wyden agreed, that if natural gas exports take off, Asian prices will come down, and Northwest prices will go up, hurting industry in a big way.
“Natural gas is a strategic American advantage today,” Wyden said. “I’m particularly concerned that industries like food processing, heavy equipment manufacturing, steel, that we preserve your ability to get reasonable energy prices.”
TPP is currently being negotiated between the United States and nine other Pacific Rim countries, including Vietnam, Mexico and Canada, and could ultimately include all 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.