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White House Trade Strategy: Talk Progressive, Use Wall Street to Negotiate the Deal

At the Stop Fast Track Rally yesterday, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka talked about the White House trying to undermine labor solidarity by going behind his back to local labor folks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty...

Let’s leave aside for a moment the disrespect that that shows to one of the administration’s closest, tried-and-true political allies. I’m sure they are telling these local labor folks how wonderfully progressive this trade deal will be for workers. It isn’t unlike the new Progressive Coalition for American Jobs organization that just popped up — which seems to have no progressive groups in the coalition but uses progressive-sounding talking points to make the case for the TPP and the ability for the president to ram it through Congress, aka fast-track authority. Then there is Tom Perez, the generally progressive Secretary of Labor, using the same kind of arguments, pushing progressives to get on board.

All these progressive talking points would be a lot more persuasive if there was a single iota of transparency in the negotiations around the TPP, but it has been the most secretive trade agreement I can remember (and I was in the Clinton White House during the NAFTA fight). What is even more outrageous is that they haven’t let anyone with a progressive mindset anywhere near the negotiations, which is a pattern dating back to the Clinton years.

When I was in the Clinton administration, I kept suggesting smart progressive people whom I thought would be great to have on the U.S. Trade Representative’s negotiating team, because the president had promised that they would negotiate treaties with progressive values in mind. None of the people I recommended was ever seriously considered. And when I would arrange meetings for progressive-minded folks to come in and talk to negotiators from USTR, I got sent memos attacking me for trying to “undermine” the process.

The pattern continued in the Obama administration. I was on the Obama transition team, but no progressive I suggested was ever even interviewed for USTR. The folks appointed at USTR have all been Wall Street-oriented Democrats, including the current head of USTR, Michael Froman, who was a senior executive at Citibank. Shocking, then, that the TPP is, by and large, a giveaway to the finance industry.

One progressive I advocated for strongly, Ron Bloom, was appointed to the administration, initially to Treasury and then as the Senior Counselor for Manufacturing Policy (the “Manufacturing Czar,” as some called him). Ron is a brilliant guy who had worked for the Steelworkers Union, and he did a great job in that role. However, it was announced to all concerned that Ron was to have no portfolio in terms of trade policy or negotiations. Having the manufacturing czar have nothing to do with trade is like telling the Interior Secretary they should have no role in the national parks, or telling the Treasury Secretary they should leave banking policy to someone else: It is absurd on its face. But the Obama administration has never wanted a progressive anywhere near trade policy.

This administration can talk all day long about how progressive the TPP is going to be, but if they were willing to be more transparent in the negotiations, or maybe appoint someone with progressive values to be part of the negotiating team, it would be a lot easier to believe them.

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