Thursday, May 21, 2015 Conversation on Money in Politics: Buying a Seat at the Negotiating Table: Money and Trade Agreements

This week, May 18-22, Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, is guest-hosting a conversation on money in politics on Today's article is written by OPW Young Adult Volunteer Jenny Hyde, looking at the way corporations and private money influences international trade.

The United States is currently in the midst of negotiating two major trade deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would seek to build new bridges with Asia-Pacific economies, and an E.U.-U.S. agreement, commonly known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would expand the U.S.’ trading relationship with Europe. The Obama Administration has publicly announced its hope to secure both deals before elections in 2016.
Together, the TPP and TTIP stand to affect a massive portion of the global economy. The TPP alone is predicted to impact approximately 46 percent of the global GDP.  While the White House has hailed the TPP as being the “most progressive trade agreement in history” – one intrinsic element is certainly not progressive: the pervasive influence of money at the negotiating table.
When trade agreements are put into effect, they have a direct impact on the livelihood of individuals residing inside trading nations. As an economic mechanism, trade can be used to grow and expand economies around the world.  Over the years, however, trade agreements have grown from simply covering tariffs, to rewriting the rules for environmental, health, and labor regulations. Therefore, it is fundamentally important that potential trade agreements reflect the interests of a state, and its economic sector. In order to synthesize the construction of trade agreements in the U.S., advisory committees meet to determine what terms of trade would best suit public welfare. These committees report to Administration officials who then proceed in international negotiations.
According to a noteworthy piece published by the Washington Post, of the 566 members on advisory committees, private industry and trade groups make up a combined 85 percent of voices at the table. The other 15 percent of voices represent small clusters of academics, labor groups, government agents and NGOs. The balance between civil society groups, and the interests of private corporations is seemingly non-existent in this make-up.
Moreover, the TPP has received a great amount of criticism for its lack of transparency. While the 566 advisory committee members receive access to the text, the public at large is kept out of the loop. What little knowledge that has been released on the agreement is the result of WikiLeaks, despite a multitude of requests from politicians and civil society groups demanding otherwise. Several years of negotiations later, the TPP still remains under a veil of secrecy.
What can be witnessed through the TPP, however, is an evolution of society’s understanding of trade. As the private sector has managed to gain greater access to government decision making processes, trade has gone from being viewed as a public good, to a business transaction made among wealthy people and multi-national corporations. And as a result of this normative shift, we now see feedback on trade agreements from civil society groups all too often labeled as an inconvenience for decision makers.  In pursuit of streamlining the trade negotiating process, corporations have been invited to the table, while everyday folks are left out of discussions.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of many strong voices against the TPP, has questioned the validity of such secrecy in light of the trade deal’s major impending repercussions. The Senator reflects, “If the American people would be opposed to a trade agreement if they saw it, then that agreement should not become the law of the United States.” While corporations are able to protect their interests under the current system, other voices have been devalued. As we are repeatedly seeing in the U.S. today, the divide between rich and poor threatens the pursuit of equal representation in our society.
Concern over this lack of input is quite justified, as major trade deals of the past have wreacked havoc on both developed and developing economies. NAFTA and CAFTA for example, both of which contain many parallels to the TPP and TTIP, have earned reputations for their negative externalities. Jobs in the US have moved overseas, while push factors for migration have increased. The treatment of workers and the environment in developing countries have become secondary interests to the pursuit of profits, and as a result, tragic headlines have repeatedly topped news cycles. With no promise of evaluating trading partners based on their human rights records, or tangible enforcement mechanism upholding standards for livelihood in economies different from our own, current terms of trade may no longer be in the public’s best interest.
How, then, do we avoid mistakes of the past, and seek to reclaim trade as an empowering economic tool? The answer may be as simple as giving trade back to the people it impacts. The problem persists, however, that there is little incentive to change the predominant trend of neoliberal decision making. Neoliberalism, since the 1980′s, can be defined as extensive economic liberalization to enhance the role of the private sector in our the economy. Within neoliberalism, deregulation incentivizes profit-makers to further exploit both people and the earth because they have much to gain and little to lose.
A resource from Share the World states, “The crucial first step towards reclaiming democratic power is therefore to curb the influence of corporations on policy making at the local, national and global levels.” As a society, we need to reclaim our role as citizens actively invested in the impacts of trade legislation. Not only this, but we need to advocate on behalf of poor and marginalized people, both among us and overseas. The voices that are not privileged enough to be heard are often those who are the most  adversely impacted. In Washington D.C. and elsewhere, the faith community has sought to make the negotiating table open for all, and it is important that it continue to do so as the TPP and TTIP move forward.
While the task of separating money and trade is a daunting one, our faith calls us to a task greater than ourselves. In the model for community we see outlined in scripture, no one is exploited or neglected for another’s personal gain. Let it be so as we seek trade justice, and seek to reclaim trade agreements as instruments of peace, made to uphold the beauty of all of God’s creation.
A seat at the table should not be bought by power or influence, but earned because of the inherent dignity of each person on earth.

Jenny Hyde graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She hopes to pursue a career in economic development, with a particular interest in post-communist contexts.  Jenny currently serves as a Young Adult Volunteer at the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, in Washington, DC, working primarily on issues related to trade justice.

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