As legislation to fast-track congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership gets ready to finally make its debut in Congress this week, a top Democratic member of the House announced he would oppose the bill.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, wrote in a letter to Representative Sandy Levin, the ranking member of the House Ways & Means Committee, that he would oppose fast-track authority, also known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. The letter was obtained by The Nation and its authenticity was confirmed by an aide to Van Hollen.
Van Hollen opposed a previous iteration of fast-track legislation last year, as did most other top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But so far, many of those Democrats (including Van Hollen) had not yet announced a position on the new TPA legislation being hammered out by Senators Ron Wyden, Orrin Hatch, and Representative Paul Ryan. (Levin opted out of those talks, and believes Congress should see at least the outline of a trade deal before taking up legislation to fast-track its approval.) Pelosi still remains publicly undecided.
If Van Hollen—a visible member of the Democratic caucus and ranking member of a major committee—ultimately supported the Wyden-Hatch-Ryan bill, it would have been a signal that House Democrats were ready to go along with the Obama administration’s trade agenda. But in his letter, Van Hollen wrote “it is clear that many [of my concerns] will not be included in a revised TPA.”
While the legislation remains behind closed doors for now, Van Hollen said continuing public opposition from Republicans made it clear that the TPA legislation wouldn’t include additional currency, labor, and environmental provisions. Moreover, he wrote that since TPA was being unveiled so close to the conclusion of the overall trade talks, “it is clearly too late for TPA to have any meaningful impact on the shape of TPP negotiations.”
Like virtually all Democrats, Van Hollen cited concerns that enforceable currency manipulation obligations would not be included in the trade deal.
He also said he objects to further entrenching the investor-state dispute settlement process, which according to negotiating documents leaked last month by Wikileaks will be included in the TPP deal. Those provisions set up a process of international tribunals where foreign companies can challenge regulatory actions by sovereign governments, and seek financial damages for any lost profit as a result of regulation. Van Hollen wrote that “a TPP that allows for increased investor lawsuits could undermine a government’s right to regulate in the public interest and involve the US in costly and detrimental lawsuits covered by American taxpayers.”
Van Hollen further cited concerns over labor standards in some of the signatory countries, particularly Vietnam, and said he insists on an agreement that includes “strong and enforceable labor protections as well as an action plan to ensure that countries are complying with internationally recognized labor rights.”
The next several days will be crucial for the fate of TPA. Many Democrats have so far remained neutral or muted on the ongoing talks, but as the legislation finally proceeds towards a vote, several leading and visible Democrats like Van Hollen will start to take positions. Activists were heartened that Van Hollen dropped an early marker in the fight. “This letter lists some good reasons why fast track is in trouble—including investor lawsuits, currency manipulation, and workers rights—but this will come down to the growing realization that fast track will make it easier to send American jobs overseas,” said Jason Stanford of the Coalition to Stop Fast Track.
Wyden’s office did not immediately return a request for comment. Van Hollen’s letter can be seen here: