Michael Harris

After years of negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive 12-country trade pact, was announced on Oct. 5. Given that many of the agreement’s details are classified and only accessible to members of Congress, it’s little wonder that few American have anything but the vaguest notion of what the TPP is or how it will affect their futures.

Since I’m not in Congress, nor was one of the administration’s negotiators, I don’t know entirely what’s in the agreement either. But as an expert in public policy and an avid reader, I’ve learned a fair amount about the TPP’s history and many of its major issues.

Despite the many years spent negotiating and drafting this agreement, I argue that it would be precipitate for Congress to approve the TPP, and that, rather than putting it on the “fast track,” as the Senate did earlier this summer, we – citizens and our representatives -- need to slow down and learn more.

On Oct. 17, President Obama published an op-ed in several newspapers to make his case for a swift passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The proposed TPP and the urgency of the president and several Republicans in Congress to pass the agreement requires analysis and attention.

The old saying, “trade follows the flag,” still holds: TPP is, on one level, the U.S. planting its flag all around the Pacific Basin “to create a platform for economic integration across the Asia Pacific region.” And this agreement follows the model set up with NAFTA and earlier accords: lowering trade barriers, establishing common policies on intellectual property, labor law, environmental issues, contract enforcement and investor-state disputes. It aims to “enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, to promote innovation, economic growth and development, and to support the creation and retention of jobs.”

Its gestation has been quite protracted and reaches back to the George W. Bush administration, which announced its intention in 2008 to become a partner in a trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement or P4 – signed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. Negotiations were formally announced later that year, and, as the process continued, additional countries asked to join.

Negotiations finally commenced under President Obama in Melbourne, Australia, in March 2010. Over two dozen rounds of negotiations and meetings then took place between early 2010 and the conclusion of negotiations early this October.

As it developed, the TPP became the centerpiece of President Obama’s trade policy. As the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s website confidently proclaimed, “TPP brings higher standards to nearly 40 percent of the global economy ... We expect this historic agreement to promote economic growth, support higher-paying jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and to promote transparency, good governance, and strong labor and environmental protections.”

So intent was President Obama in finalizing TPP that, in a controversial move, the Senate in June 2015 agreed to give the president a ‘fast-track’ authority to expedite the final negotiations. This was passed despite the fact that 62 percent of voters opposed the passage of fast-track negotiating authority for the TPP deal.

The positive implications of TPP could be huge. The TPP countries are the largest goods and services export market of the United States. U.S. goods exports to the broader Asia-Pacific region totaled $942 billion in 2012, representing 61 percent of total U.S. goods exports. U.S. private services exports totaled $226 billion in 2011, 38 percent of total U.S. private services exports to the world. America’s small- and medium-sized enterprises alone exported $247 billion to the Asia-Pacific in 2011.

Reducing the trade barriers offers the possibility that these already astonishing figures could go even higher. Indeed, the belief, by some, of the economic potential resulting from liberalizing trade within the Pacific region is so big that a strange coalition has been formed. It includes the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans, and they have committed to secure a speedy final approval.

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So, why am I not joining the chorus? While trade deals are generally boons to economic growth, sometimes they are not. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, avers, Mexico and Latin America did not fare particularly well in the 20 years NAFTA’s passage. Moreover, many Americans, organizations, and advocacy groups have memories of NAFTA draining high-paying manufacturing jobs from the U.S. and replacing them with lower wage service sector jobs in their wake.

Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for President, characterized TPP in similar language after the negotiations concluded this October, “Wall Street and big corporations just won a big victory to advance a disastrous trade deal.”

In a strange parallel with Obama’s Republican supporters, Sanders has been joined by some strange bedfellows, too: not only other progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren but also Hillary Clinton, who has come out against TPP despite her support for the secret negotiations while she was Secretary of State. Most surprising of all, the Republican Presidential front runner, Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman, has also decried TPP while on the campaign stump as “terrible.”

So, what’s the appropriate response to the proposed TPP?

There are many solid reasons to be worried about TPP. Many Americans are much more wary of international trade deals in the wake of NAFTA than they were before; they see TPP as another threat to their already diminishing job security and the candidates are responding to those anxieties. Indeed, the Economic Policy Institute has estimated that NAFTA cost America 700,000 jobs, and the Washington Post has averred that claims that TPP will add jobs are largely illusory.

Progressive websites like the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that many of the provisions in the TPP will erode the power of national governments and strengthen those of already powerful multinational corporations as well as radically re-write intellectual property rules. That means laws designed to protect citizens will be re-written in favor of multinational corporations.

Whether the supporters or critics of TPP are right or wrong is somewhat beside the point. The real issue is that, from a policy standpoint, the Obama Administration and its international partners did not establish a clear structure and process to the development of this major trade agreement. This is bad practice and inappropriate policy.

Let’s “slow track” the TPP. Congress should table any vote on the TPP until after the November 2016 elections. A vote of this consequence should not be made with electoral considerations in mind. Because the Obama Administration has deemed this to be one of their defining legacies, final approval should wait until a new administration that is less invested politically in the treaty is sworn in.

More needs to be known about what is in this agreement. The consequences for Americans’ rights and well-being need to be better understood and actively debated. “Slow tracking” TPP will allow time to develop a helpful public debate over the benefits and drawbacks of this agreement. It will enable the democratic process to determine whether this agreement will lead to positive economic outcomes or not.

Dr. Michael Harris Ph.D is a dean and professor at Tennessee State University and the former chancellor of Indiana University Kokomo.