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Trans-Pacific Partnership: Under Cover of Darkness, a Corporate Coup Is Underway

The highly secretive pact, dubbed "NAFTA on steroids," is so invasive it would even limit how governments can spend tax dollars.
 
 
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Editor's note: On this week's AlterNet Radio Hour, Joshua Holland spoke with Lori Wallace about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the larger mythology of "free trade." You can listen to their discussion below this article.

Have you heard about the small U.S. government agency engaged in years of closed-door negotiations that could undermine the Obama administration’s declared goals of creating jobs, reregulating the financial sector and lowering healthcare costs? 

With the direct participation of 600 corporations and shocking levels of secrecy, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is rushing to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Branded as a trade agreement (yawn) by its corporate proponents, TPP largely has evaded public and congressional scrutiny since negotiations were launched in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration.

But trade is the least of it. Only two of TPP’s 26 chapters actually have to do with trade. The rest is about new enforceable corporate rights and privileges and constraints on government regulation. This includes new extensions of price-raising drug patent monopolies, corporate rights to attack government drug formulary pricing plans, safeguards to facilitate job offshoring and new corporate controls over natural resources.

Also included are severe limits on government regulation of financial services, zoning and land use, product and food safety, energy and other essential services, tobacco, and more. The copyright chapter poses many of the threats to Internet freedom of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was stalled in Congress under intense public pressure.

The proposed pact is so invasive of domestic policy space that it would even limit how governments can spend tax dollars. Buy America and other Buy Local procurement preferences used to reinvest our tax dollars in the American economy would be banned and sweat-free, human rights or environmental conditions on government contracts would be subject to challenge in closed-door foreign tribunals.

Indeed, signatory countries would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to TPP’s rules, effecting a quiet corporate coup d’état. And, regardless of election outcomes or changes in public opinion, these extreme rules could not be altered without the consent of all signatory countries. Failure to conform to these rules would subject countries to indefinite trade sanctions.

A recent leak of one of TPP’s most controversial chapters reveals that the pact would elevate individual corporations and investors to equal status with sovereign nations to privately enforce this treaty. U.S. negotiators are among the greatest champions of this “investor state” enforcement system. It would give any foreign firm incorporated in any TPP country new rights to skirt U.S. courts and laws, directly sue the U.S. government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for financial, health, environmental, land use and other laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges.

After Obama’s election, U.S. trade officials were instructed to withdraw from the TPP negotiations Bush had launched – supposedly to sort out a new approach that implemented candidate Obama’s campaign commitments to fix the damaging old NAFTA model. But after a kabuki dance of ears-closed check-the-box “consultations” with a minimal number of congressional representatives and civil society groups, Obama’s trade officials picked up where Bush left off. Actually, they doubled down -- pushing even more extreme positions than the Bush administration on issues like Internet freedom and access to medicines.

Now a thirteenth round of TPP negotiations involving the Obama administration will occur next week in San Diego. There negotiators from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative will meet behind closed doors with their counterparts from eight Asian and Latin American countries. What’s on the table is a 1 percenters’ dream – a corporate power tool of unprecedented scope and might. Think NAFTA on steroids with the whole world.

How could something so extreme get so far? Because the entire process has occurred under conditions of unprecedented secrecy. And, the goal is to sign a final deal before the election.

Why the rush? It's because these sorts of corporate-power-grabs via “trade” agreements do not fare well in the sunshine. Last month, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk defended the extreme secrecy of TPP negotiations by noting that when the draft of a major regional trade pact was released previously, it became impossible to finish the deal as then proposed.

Yes, in a moment of candor, the top U.S. trade official admitted that TPP must be kept secret because otherwise they won’t be able to shove this deal past the public and Congress.

We’re talking about truly unprecedented secrecy. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) is the chair of the Senate committee with official jurisdiction over TPP and he always supports these sorts of agreements – and yet USTR has denied him access even to the U.S. proposals for the talks.

If all of this were not sufficiently dire, TPP may well be the last trade agreement that the U.S. negotiates. Getting these rules right is essential, because TPP, if completed, would have a new feature relative to past U.S. trade pacts: It would remain open for any other country to join later. Last month, USTR Kirk said that he "would love nothing more" than to have China join TPP.

The TPP offered an opportunity to develop a new model of trade agreement that could deliver the benefits of expanded trade without unduly undermining signatory nations’ domestic policies or establishing special privileges for foreign corporations. Candidate Obama and countless members of Congress campaigned on replacing the damaging NAFTA trade pact model.

Instead, Obama’s USTR has doubled down. Does the president or even the White House political shop know the real story about the politics of TPP? (Majorities of Democrats, GOP and Independents oppose these sorts of agreements, polling consistently shows.) If they do, do they assume that we do not?

Either way, there’s only one way forward. We must force their attention to TPP and make President Obama decide whose side he is on. Either he can let his negotiators finish this TPP in secrecy and slam the 99 percent. Or, he can stand with us, release the current texts and order his staff to start over with large doses of congressional and public guidance to develop a new deal that benefits the majority.

Here's our interview with Lori Wallach:


Check this out on Chirbit

Lori Wallach is the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
 
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