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Cathy Kunkel: Secretive trade deal won't benefit West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the next couple months, Congress will likely have to make a decision about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement currently under negotiation between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Unfortunately, the process and the expected outcomes of this free-trade agreement come at the expense of democratic freedom.

The negotiations have been conducted in secret, and the White House is asking Congress to pass "fast-track authority," that would cede congressional authority for international trade to the executive branch. Under "fast track," Congress would be limited to an up-or-down vote on the TPP, without making any amendments. In other words, the White House is asking Congress to sign away its right to amend the treaty before it can even read what is in it.

West Virginia's congressional delegation uniformly voted against granting the president fast-track authority the last time it was proposed (in 2002). Two of West Virginia's representatives -- David McKinley and Nick Rahall -- have signed on to recent letters from members of Congress to the president stating their opposition to fast-track authority for the TPP.

Limiting lawmakers' ability to debate the treaty foreshadows the reduction in sovereign power that will occur if the treaty is approved. U.S. negotiators have been pushing for the TPP to include "state-investor dispute settlement," an anti-democratic provision that would allow any corporation to challenge a law or judicial decision of another country (including the United States) that is seen as impeding their ability to do business in that country. Such challenges would be taken before international arbitration panels -- whose proceedings are generally not open to the public and which have the power to require countries to pay massive fines and compensate investors for future lost profits.

For example, under the state-investor dispute provisions of a bilateral Hong Kong-Australia trade agreement, tobacco company Phillip Morris is challenging the Australian government's law requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging, arguing that this will hurt its profits in Australia. The law had already been challenged and upheld in Australia's highest court.

State-investor dispute settlement is already common practice in recent trade agreements, including NAFTA. Not surprisingly, the Australian government opposes state-investor dispute settlement, noting that it effectively grants more legal rights and power to foreign businesses than to domestic ones.

U.S. public policy is already overly influenced by money and corporate interests; we don't need to give corporations more opportunities to attempt to overturn U.S. policy via non-transparent trade arbitration tribunals.

In addition to the anti-democratic nature of this proposed free-trade deal, there's the more fundamental question of whether we need it at all. The textbook theory of free trade says that if one nation has a comparative advantage in A, and another in B, then everyone is better off through free trade. But if one country has, say, a serious unemployment problem, that's no longer necessarily true. That country's workers would likely be better off if capital stayed in that country to employ more people to produce both commodities.

The United States lost an estimated 6 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and we are currently in the middle of a so-called "jobless recovery." There's not much reason to think that, by making it easier for capital to flow abroad to take advantage of cheap labor and increasing the imports of manufactured goods from our trading partners, the TPP will somehow bring back manufacturing jobs to America.

Kunkel is a consultant in Fayetteville.


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