Robert Weissman tells Amy Goodman he is optimistic that the TPP is going to be stopped and that people power will actually prevail over the interests of multinational corporations.
The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations reached an agreement on 5 October on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest regional trade accord in history.
The agreement has been negotiated for eight years in secret and will encompass 40 per cent of the global economy. The secret 30-chapter text has still not been made public, although sections of draft text have been leaked by WikiLeaks during the negotiations.
Congress will have at least 90 days to review the TPP before President Obama can sign it. The Senate granted Obama approval to fast-track the measure and present the agreement to Congress for a yes-or-no vote with no amendments allowed.
During Senate hearings in April, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders fought fast track, warning that the American people need time to understand the TPP. He issued a statement on 5 October, saying, “I am disappointed but not surprised by the decision to move forward on the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that will hurt consumers and cost American jobs. Wall Street and other big corporations have won again. It is time for the rest of us to stop letting multi-national corporations rig the system to pad their profits at our expense.”
Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, joins us to discuss TPP.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Rob Weissman into the conversation. Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen. Can you put this in the larger context, Rob, of the TPP overall—who this benefits, who this hurts, who made the decisions around this, and then, who gets to decide whether the US approves this?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, is a collection of provisions that amount to a wish list for giant multinational corporations. It’s really as simple as that. And the most important industry in the whole deal was the pharmaceutical industry, which is why the USTR, the US trade representative, insisted on putting in the provision that Zahara was talking about. It’s why the agency was willing to hold up the entire deal to try to extract more concessions for Big Pharma.
You know, as your viewers and listeners know, this is a deal that was negotiated in secret over a period of five years—secret from the American public, secret from the public in the countries that were negotiating, but not secret from the giant corporations who it aims to benefit.
The USTR has a system of advisory committees, so it shows text and runs ideas by corporate representatives from almost all affected industries. So, in general, it’s reasonable to say that corporate America knew what was going on all along. And they absolutely knew, in the waning days of the negotiation, where USTR made clear they were in constant conversation with industry representatives about what they were discussing. They were not in constant conversation with people like Zahara or consumer groups or labour unions or environmental organisations.
And as a result, we have a deal that comes out that prioritises the needs and demands of multinational corporations, gives them special rights, gives them special powers, and entrenches a failed development model and a failed trade model, which we can reasonably call Nafta on steroids.
So what we’re going to see coming out of this deal, if it goes through—and it’s not a done deal at all yet—but if the deal is finalised and enacted and implemented, we’re going to see an expansion of the Nafta model. That means, in the United States, more export of jobs; more downward pressure on wages, especially in the United States and throughout the 12-country region; degradation of the environment and difficulties in imposing new environmental standards; increasing pharmaceutical prices; and the creation and expansion of special powers for giant—giant foreign corporations to sue governments when they take actions that the companies say would interfere with their expected profits.
Now, for the last part of your question and why it’s not a done deal, although allegedly the negotiations are over and there may still even be last-minute things they’re working on, in the United States, the deal has to be approved by Congress.
And we had a preview of what the vote was going to be like earlier this year when Congress gave the administration fast-track authority. That was the deal that set the terms on which a TPP or other trade deals would be voted on in Congress. And that was an incredibly close vote. So it foreshadows an incredibly close vote that’s going to come on the TPP sometime next year, in an election year, which the Obama administration was desperately trying to avoid.
Why try to avoid it? Because the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to Nafta and Nafta-style deals. So we’re going to see whether members of Congress are willing to represent their people, to respond to the demands of their constituents, in an election year, or whether they choose to demand—to respond to the demands of their donors and the Chamber of Commerce and Big Pharma and the big business community.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders spoke out against the TPP during Senate hearings in April. This is what he said.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Not only is there massive opposition to this TPP agreement, but there is a lot of concern that the American people have not been involved in the process, that there’s not a lot of transparency. So what we are trying to do here is to make sure that this debate takes place out in the public, that the American people have as much time as possible to understand the very significant implications of this trade agreement. And I and, I suspect, others will do our best to make that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, Donald Trump tweeted, the Republican presidential candidate, “The incompetence of our current administration is beyond comprehension. TPP is a terrible [deal].”
Rob, last year at your own gala, at the Public Citizen gala, Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the crowd. She famously said, “From what I hear, Wall Street pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the deal in the upcoming trade [talks]. So,” she said, “the question is: Why are the trade [talks] secret? You’ll love this answer. Boy, the things you learn on Capitol Hill. I actually have had supporters of the deal say to me, ‘They have to be secret, because if the American people knew what was actually in them, they would be opposed.'” Rob Weissman?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, well, as usual, Senator Warren hits it out of the park, and that’s exactly right. And, you know, I’ve had members of—officials at the USTR say effectively the same thing: “We can’t let people know what’s in the deal because then people might object to the deal.”
Well, now that the deal is almost concluded, we’re going to eventually see the text, and we’re going to have the fight. And it’s going to be a really tough fight. I mean, you know, as you noted, Senator Sanders is strongly opposed to it. I think we may see Senator Clinton—Secretary Clinton come out against the deal, under pressure, in the next few weeks and months. Donald Trump is strongly against it.
There is a strong—and this is not a—although it’s partisan in some strange ways on Capitol Hill, it’s not a partisan issue among the American public. Across the board, people oppose this stuff.
So, if you’re Republican, you’re going to have to deal with a constituency that actually doesn’t want you to carry water for the Chamber of Commerce and for Big Pharma on this issue. And there are going to—that’s going to cause a lot of tension in the Republican Party, especially as you have things stoked up by Donald Trump and probably some other of the presidential candidates. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both voted against fast track in the Senate vote. So we’re going to have a very interesting political period.
It’s completely unclear what the timing is going to be. It will not go before the Congress before February, but it could be basically any time in 2016 that this happens. The administration, unfortunately, because of the passage of fast track, is going to have a great deal of control—great deal of control over the introduction of the bill and the timing of an eventual vote.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by Japan’s economy minister, Akira Amari. He talked about some of the details of the TPP.
AKIRA AMARI: [translated] With regard to dairy products, we maintain tariff quotas and the state trading system. We install a new tariff quota framework based on the current tariff quota and the state trading system, but maintain the tax rates outside of the framework. … We reached an agreement to complete elimination of tariffs on more than 80 per cent of auto parts with the US, which have the export value of almost 2 trillion yen from Japan.
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Weissman, can you respond to Japan’s economy minister?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, there’s a lot that’s interesting in that, and this is, you know, some of the stuff that I think is probably less interesting for most people. But on the auto side, those tariff reductions are going to take place in 25 years’ time—at which point who knows if there will even be automobiles as we’re talking about? So, in terms of looking at exports of US cars, well, it’s enough to know that Ford Motor Company actually has come out opposed to the deal, not so much over this issue, but over other things that they say weren’t achieved in the TPP negotiation.
On the dairy side, there was a really interesting comment yesterday by the New England—I’m sorry, by the New Zealand trade minister, who talked about the fact that dairy is not a globalised industry yet. So, New Zealand is the world’s biggest exporter of dairy products, and his vision is for a globalised dairy industry, like—he said, like the auto industry.
Well, you know, one really should ask what the value is and whether we really want a world of a globalised dairy industry, or whether there’s a different vision of how we organise the economy and the production of food that relies actually on local sourcing of products, and whether we think that addressing climate change, among other pressing issues, demands that we look more towards localism.
So, the idea of the TPP is really, at its core, moving completely away from that, globalising everything under the control of giant multinational corporations, taking power away from, in this case, local farmers, but also local and small businesses, and really centralising authority in the supernational giant corporations.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, can you comment on Zahara Heckscher’s arrest, why she was arrested, and what you understand was in this TPP around cases like hers, around pharmaceutical drugs? The administration would say they actually weakened what the corporations wanted.
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, let me first say that I think what Zahara did was really heroic, to move beyond her own personal challenges in dealing with, as you hear, an incredibly difficult situation and say, “You know what? I can identify with women around the world and patients around the world, and even people who aren’t yet patients, and advocate for their interests.” I just think it’s incredibly moving and touching. And she’s a friend, and to say I’m proud of her, it sort of puts me in some role, but I’m just inspired by what she did.
On the underlying issue, what we’re looking at is the degree to which the pharmaceutical industry can impose monopoly pricing on the entire world. And what we’re calling the death sentence clause is particularly about a class of drugs called biologics. These are basically biotech drugs. It’s the cutting edge of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s most cancer drugs. It’s a number of drugs to treat arthritis and a number of drugs to treat smaller disease classes.
But it’s the future of the industry. There’s nothing really special about the drugs in terms of market pricing. They’re made differently. They’re made from living cells and proteins as opposed to what are called small molecule chemical drugs, that are traditional drugs. They’re slightly more difficult to manufacture.
But at the end of the day, the issue that was at stake here is whether or not we’re going to have monopoly pricing for eternity for these drugs, or when generic competition is introduced into the market. And this issue about five, eight or 12 years, among other issues, was about the degree and timing of when generic competition is made available.
And as Zahara was explaining, these drugs are priced at such astronomical levels, by and large, that while they’re on patent, they are unaffordable in poor countries. They’re quite unaffordable in richer countries, too, and we’re seeing increasing levels of rationing in the rich countries. But in the poor countries, they’re just out of reach.
And the question of when they become available to people who need them is entirely a question of when there’s generic competition permitted, because the price of the drugs has nothing to do with the cost of developing them, nothing to do with the cost of researching them, nothing to do with the cost of manufacturing them. The high prices are entirely due to the monopolies.
So, very unfortunately, USTR made its single most high priority in the TPP negotiations the advancement of the monopoly profit interests of Big Pharma. And that’s what was going on here. Now, Big Pharma wanted 12 years in terms of this death sentence clause, and they didn’t. They got something that’s between five and eight years, and incredibly complicated, but will delay the introduction of generic competition for many, many years.
And it’s really—it’s an absolute disgrace, but it’s a sign of what the whole process is to know that the U.S. was willing to hold up the entire deal to win gains for Big Pharma. They didn’t get all they wanted, because the countries in the negotiation pushed back. They were supported by local campaigns and global campaigners who explained what the consequences were.
And thankfully, the key negotiators said, “You know what? We actually care little bit about public health. We care about patient rights. We’re not only about the interests of Big Pharma.” That was despite the demands from the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. And, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama’s Trade Representative Office.
ROBERT WEISSMAN: —even though they stood up, the USTR got a lot for Big Pharma.
AMY GOODMAN: What does President Obama gain by this?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: You know, that is a complete mystery. This is supposedly going to be a big part of his legacy. Well, if you ask Bill Clinton about his legacy with Nafta, it’s something he’s embarrassed about and doesn’t want associated with him. And that’s what it’s going to be for President Obama if this deal goes through.
I mean, I think President Obama has been—you know, he’s unfortunately influenced by Mike Froman, who’s the USTR and a personal friend, who’s a believer in this stuff, but a pure corporate guy. And I think that in Washington, D.C., outside—unlike everywhere else in the country, in Washington, D.C., serious people know that you have to support free trade, and therefore the president has done that.
Now, of course, the rest of the country understands it much more clearly through experience. And also, of course, these deals have nothing to do with free trade, exemplified by these Big Pharma protection provisions, which are all about monopolies and undermining and interfering with free trade and free competition.
AMY GOODMAN: So what happens in Congress now?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, we’re going to have some period of time. There’s going to be 90 days, at least, from now, before the president can sign the deal, and after that, 30 days, at least, before the implementing legislation is presented to Congress to vote on. So we’re looking at least four months before the thing finally is formally presented to Congress. And it may be much longer, but it’s going to be at least four months.
In that period, and when the thing is on the floor of Congress, you’re going to see a massive mobilisation in the United States to demand members of Congress vote this horrible deal down. You’ve got almost the entirety of the labour movement, almost the entirety of the environmental movement, almost all consumer groups, massive numbers of faith-based groups, community groups, all united in opposition to this, and it is going to become a major issue in American politics.
It’s going to become a major issue in the presidential campaign. And, you know, we’re going to work super hard on this, but we’re very optimistic that this thing is going to be stopped and that people power will actually prevail over the interests of the multinational corporations.
AMY GOODMAN: Has Hillary Clinton signaled either way whether she agrees with her competition, right, whether she agrees with Bernie Sanders or agrees with the TPP?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, her views, let’s say, are evolving on this. And I expect them to evolve into opposition. She supported the deal, or the negotiations, when she was secretary of state. In her book, she raises concerns about one of the worst elements of these kinds of deals, which are the so-called investor-state ISDS rules, that give corporations special rights to sue countries for limiting their expected profits. So she’s raised that issue specifically.
As a presidential candidate, she said she has concerns, and she wants the deal to meet the highest standards. Once the text is finally published, she can no longer talk about what the deal might be, and she’s going to have to talk about what the deal is. And I think she’s going to be under a lot of pressure to do the right thing and come out in opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: So, finally, Zahara Heckscher, the—what you call the death sentence clause is still in the TPP.
ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the TPP should be given a death sentence?
ZAHARA HECKSCHER: A hundred percent. I think cancer patients and our families need to stand up and tell the Congress to vote this thing down. We did—through activism and our brothers and sisters in other countries influencing their governments, we knocked some provisions down from 12 years to five-to-eight years.
But if you have cancer, you can’t wait five years, you can’t wait eight years, let alone 12 years. So, unfortunately, the death sentence clause is still in there. Other negative provisions are still in there which will harm access to non-biologics.
And, you know, our message is TPP kills. And we’re going to be joining the other citizen groups working against this. And I’ll put my body on the line again if I have to, because it’s that important.
AMY GOODMAN: Zahara Heckscher, I want to thank you for being with us, a social justice advocate, arrested last week for disrupting the TPP negotiations. She is currently in treatment for breast cancer.
ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I also want to thank Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.