What Trump Versus Clinton Means for Trade Debate

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By Chris Opfer

May 6 — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don't have a whole lot in common these days, but their shared opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is giving the Pacific Rim trade deal's supporters fits.

“If Trump is elected president, the TPP is dead and dead and dead,” Gabe Horwitz, the director of Third Way's economic program, told Bloomberg BNA May 6. “If TPP doesn't pass this year and Secretary Clinton is elected president, it's going to be awhile before the agreement is resurrected, if at all.”

That makes it all the more important for President Barack Obama and Republican leaders, who support the 12-nation deal, to get legislation authorizing the TPP passed before Obama leaves office early next year.

It also means that labor groups looking to stop the agreement will ramp up the pressure on Congress and will expect Clinton to keep up her opposition to the deal if elected to the White House.

“We are hopeful that she's going to remain committed to opposing the TPP because it’s the biggest disaster for U.S. jobs that there could be,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson told Bloomberg BNA May 6.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said May 5 the administration has been in contact with Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, as well as Democrats, who support the 12-nation trade deal about the best way to secure approval of the agreement by Congress.

House Ways and Means Committee Kevin Brady (R-Texas) recently said he wants Congress to consider the trade agreement before the end of the year.

Representatives for the Trump and Clinton campaigns didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA's requests for comment for this story.

Strange Bedfellows

Labor groups have been railing against the TPP since well before Congress gave Obama the power to close the deal with limited oversight last year (117 DLR A-7, 6/18/15).

They're concerned about what they say are weak worker protections and “rules of origin” that allow automobiles and other products to be made largely from parts manufactured in China and other nonparticipating countries (233 DLR A-10, 12/4/15).

A varied group of lawmakers that includes Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are also against the deal.

They say that it will cost Americans jobs—because employers are likely to move work to partner countries with less strict wage protections and collective bargaining rights—and it doesn't do enough to combat currency manipulation that hurts domestic businesses' competitive position, among other problems (33 DLR A-6, 2/19/16).

“I think the political environment speaks for itself, DeLauro told reporters May 5. “You have every presidential candidate in opposition to the TPP.”

‘Horrible Deal.'

Trump said during a Republican presidential debate in January that the TPP is a “horrible deal” that's “going to lead to nothing but trouble.” He added that he'd “rather make individual deals with individual countries” than move forward with a multination agreement.

Democrats have generally been pretty hesitant to side with Trump on anything, but TPP opponents say he's barking up the right tree. “Donald Trump has helped Americans understand that other countries are manipulating currency at the cost of American jobs,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told reporters May 5.

Meanwhile, Clinton has been more deliberate in weighing in on the trade deal. She held off on taking a position in the early stages of her presidential campaign before coming out against the TPP late last year.

Clinton has pointed in particular to currency manipulation protections, intellectual property provisions related to the pharmaceutical industry and the impact on American jobs as her primary concerns. But she's left open some room to potentially change her mind on the deal if certain tweaks are made.

“She hasn't really addressed the issues,” Robert E. Scott, a senior economist who focuses on trade at the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA May 5. “She supported most of the other major trade deals over the last 20 years, so she seems to be someone inclined to go with the status quo here in Washington.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, also opposes the TPP.

Lame-Duck Votes Possible

It remains unclear if and when Congress will actually take up legislation to approve the trade deal.

Third Way's Horwitz said he still expects to see votes come in the lame-duck session following the elections, perhaps after additional negotiations on non-labor issues related to the tobacco, financial services and pharmaceutical industries.

“The window of opportunity is now,” Horwitz said. “I think this summer—definitely behind the scenes and potentially publicly—what you're going to see is the remaining issues get worked out.”

Third Way is a think tank that focuses on the advancement of “moderate policy and political ideas.”

The key for TPP supporters is to get most or all of the Democrats who voted to renew Obama's “fast track” trade promotion authority last year to also get behind the final deal.

Although Trump's criticism of the agreement definitely complicates things for Republicans, Horwitz noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are still a little frosty when it comes to the idea of a Trump presidency.

“We’ve seen that Republicans are extremely willing at all levels of their party to go against the nominee.” Horwitz said.

Labor groups say they appreciate Trump's position on the trade deal. They're also quick to mention that they're not so keen about his support for right-to-work measures, which would ban “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements, and his skepticism about raising the federal minimum wage.

“We've got to look at the whole ball of wax, so to speak,” United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told Bloomberg BNA May 6. “Both presidential candidates on the Democrat side have been much better on worker issues than Mr. Trump has ever been in his life.”

As for Clinton, labor groups are cautiously optimistic that she'd scrap the agreement if it hasn't been approved should she get to the oval office.

“We're going to hold her to her word,” Nelson said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com