Trade pact will give corporations more power

An obscure and controversial trade bill negotiated by the Obama Administration and pending in Congress poses a direct threat to our democracy and to Alaska’s sovereignty.

Unfortunately, our two senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan — recently voted to “fast track” the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) before anyone knows what’s in it. 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a multinational trade agreement between a dozen countries around the Pacific Basin that would account for more than 40 percent of the world’s trade. It expands the provisions of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which have resulted in massive trade deficits and out-sourced countless manufacturing jobs from the United States. Since 1993, for example, America’s trade deficit with its North American trading partners (exports minus imports) has ballooned from $16 billion to $82 billion annually. The TPP, however, would do much, much more. 

International trade is complicated stuff. In the early years of trade agreements, the focus was on transboundary tariffs, with a goal to “level the playing field” so goods and services could more easily flow between trading partners. Today’s trade agreements are wholly different beasts, and instead of tariffs, they increasingly seek to reduce so-called “non-tariff” trade barriers. These non-tariff trade barriers can be any law, rule or subsidy that may have the effect of limiting trade or reducing corporate profits, and they include such basic safeguards as drinking water protections and fair labor laws. 

The reason trade agreements focus on nontariff barriers, of course, is so corporations can produce the cheapest widget at the greatest profit by shifting production to nations with low-cost labor and lax environmental rules. This is the phenomenon — commonly referred to as the “regulatory race to the bottom” — where different states and countries vie for capital and manufacturing jobs by competing to see who can have the lowest standards. So, for example, we pollute the rivers and exploit the workers in China so we can maximize corporate profits and provide the cheap, disposable goods we get from Walmart and Home Depot. 

To compound the problem, we know from Wikileaks the TPP has what are known as “investor-state” provisions, which allow any corporation that believes its profits have been hampered by a country’s laws or rules to challenge the offending provision in a secret tribunal presided over by corporate lawyers. These provisions extend extraordinary new rights and privileges to corporations that allow them to bypass our court systems in the United States and Alaska, and undermine our sovereign right to govern ourselves. 

Importantly, the “fast track” bill Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan recently supported means Congress will be prohibited from amending the TPP, and will be forced to vote it up or down within a short timeframe and limited debate.

This hasty process is all the more disturbing when we consider the TPP was negotiated in secret by teams of corporate lawyers working closely with the United States Trade Representative. Everyday citizens and groups were barred from participating, and today, the Obama Administration still refuses to make the TPP a public document. 

At the most basic level, the TPP will continue the path of empowerment for large multinational corporations at the expense of ordinary people. Through a carefully tailored agenda started in the early 1970s, corporations now have the same constitutional rights as living, breathing, natural people. The U.S. Supreme Court took this illogical notion to the extreme in 2010 when it invented new law in Citizens United and ruled that money is speech, and corporate “persons” have a first amendment right to spend unlimited sums to influence our local, state and federal elections.

Today, we see powerful corporations openly, freely — and legally — buying elections across our nation, and challenging any pesky laws that limit their right to “corporate speech.” 

Now, the TPP — which was negotiated in secret and remains a secret document today — will give Monsanto, Chevron, Nestle, Exxon-Mobil and other massive multinational corporations even more power, including the right to challenge our laws and rules in secret tribunals beyond our courts and to secure huge monetary awards from U.S. taxpayers if their claims prevail. 

In Alaska, we might think we are immune from the TPP. But even well-established programs such as the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Alaska Grown could be challenged because they effectively distort markets by providing subsidies that favor our products over others’. 

So, next time you see Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan, ask them if they’ve read the entire TPP. Ask them why they voted to curtail debate on it and why they’ve allowed it to remain secret. 

And ask them why they would agree to trade away our freedom to govern ourselves to unaccountable international tribunals, convened behind closed doors, where corporate lawyers will decide which of our laws stands or falls. 

Bob Shavelson is the executive cirector of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit group dedicated to clean water, healthy salmon and a vibrant democracy in Alaska.