May 14,2015

Wyden Touts Progressive, Modern Approach to Trade that Throws Out NAFTA Playbook

WASHINGTON Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today, saying the legislation pending before the Senate represents a new approach to trade:

Today begins the process of closing the history books on the NAFTA era in trade. The Senate is sending a powerful, bipartisan message that the same old status quo is unacceptable in 2015, and the customs and enforcement package passed this morning will go a long way to breaking new ground. Now the Senate will be talking about the final two elements of this overall trade package, which are Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Here’s the bottom line: This legislation is going to put NAFTA in the rear view mirror and fix many of its mistakes.

The bipartisan legislation coming before the Senate moves the ball forward in several ways. Back in NAFTA, American priorities like labor rights and environmental protection were an afterthought, and they were stuck into unenforceable side deals. With this legislation, they will be bedrock elements of our trade agreements.

Back in NAFTA, the United States just asked its trading partners to enforce their own labor and environmental laws and hoped for the best. This TPA says that if a trading partner’s laws fall short of recognized international standards, they will be required to pass new laws to fix the problem. And for the first time, these labor and environmental protections will be fully enforceable -- backed by the threat of trade sanctions. On these issues, NAFTA-era policies had no teeth whatsoever. In effect, this legislation will raise the global bar on labor rights and environmental protection, instead of encouraging a race to the bottom. And for the first time, thanks to the hard work of our colleague Senator Ben Cardin, human rights will be a negotiating objective for our trade agreements.

Back in the NAFTA era, the United States fought for intellectual property protection for drug makers, but it did nothing to look out for people stuck in hardship around the world who need access to affordable medicines. That’s going to change with this legislation.

The old NAFTA playbook was written in a time when cellphones were as big as bricks, and Internet commerce was still a dream. Today, it is at the heart of our economy.

So this new approach to trade is going to help cement our leadership of the digital economy. Even now in 2015, you have repressive governments in China, Russia, and elsewhere building digital walls that block the free flow of information and commerce online. If that trend continues, it would chop the Internet up into little, country-sized pieces. In my view, the Internet is the shipping lane of the 21st century, and products sent around the world in bits and bytes are every bit as important as products packaged into shipping containers and sent across oceans.

I believe this is our best chance to fix what NAFTA got wrong and introduce a new era in trade policy. The only way for the United States to defend an open Internet, promote access to affordable medicines, and protect our values on labor standards, environmental protection, and human rights is to fight for them in trade negotiations. Nobody else will pick up the banner and fight for those progressive, American values the same way the U.S. can. In fact, if the U.S. fails to lead the way, it’ll be China that steps in to write rules that hurt American workers and exporters. That’s why it’s critical to engage with modern, progressive policies.

Even with a higher bar for trade agreements, there are skeptics with doubts about trade deals and the process of moving them through Congress. And in my view, a lot of that skepticism is driven by all the excessive secrecy that has accompanied the trade discussion. I’ve indicated for a long time now that I think those who are skeptical about our trade policies have a valid point on this issue.

If you believe in trade and want more of it, then why have all the secrecy? It’s too common that Oregonians and other Americans have no way of knowing what’s on the table in trade talks or how they’d be affected. This was a NAFTA problem, and it’s still a problem today. It’s true that there will always be the need for some details in our trade negotiations to be protected. I often say at town hall meetings that nobody is talking about giving out the secret sauce in some particular product. But today, people have a reasonable expectation to be able to fire up the computer, click open their browser, and learn about the public policies that affect them and their families. 

The days are over when Americans can be kept in the dark on trade. 

Back under the NAFTA playbook, the President could be handed an agreement for signature and put pen to paper right away.

Under this plan, the president will have to make the full text of trade deals public for 60 days before he can sign them. And when you factor in Congress, agreements will be public for as many as 100 days before they’re voted on, and likely more. It’s my view that this is a long overdue change, and a very dramatic change that is part of the reason why I note that this TPA does not resemble the NAFTA era on transparency.

Additionally, long before deals are finalized, our trade officials will give detailed, public updates on what’s at stake in negotiations. The public will be updated about the U.S. position as the negotiations are going on.  In addition, every member of Congress will have access to the full text from beginning to end. And the doors will be open for members to attend negotiating sessions and briefings.

Perhaps the most important new tool in this legislation is the procedure for hitting the brakes on bad trade deals before they reach the Senate or House floor. If a trade deal doesn’t meet the high bar Congress sets under this progressive, modern approach, it’ll be a whole lot easier to shut it down. It’s my view that protecting that ability makes the process much more democratic. All of those upgrades will help close the door on NAFTA once and for all.

The second matter at hand this afternoon is the support system for America’s workers known as Trade Adjustment Assistance. And paired with TAA is the Health Coverage Tax Credit.

When times are tough for workers in industries affected by trade, the Health Coverage Credit guarantees that those people and their families will still be able to see their doctors. And Trade Adjustment Assistance is there to help with job training and financial support. It’s a lifeline for more than 100,000 Americans today, including 3,000 in Oregon, and it helps to guarantee that those workers and their families have a springboard to a new set of job opportunities.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program has spent the last few years working at reduced capacity, and that’s going to change with this legislation. TAA will be back at full strength into the year 2021 with a level of funding that the administration says will cover everybody who qualifies.

Once again the program will bring service workers into the mix, because it’s not just manufacturing employees who face competition from abroad. And TAA will take into account competition that comes from anywhere, including China and India, instead of a select list of countries.

I want to be very clear that the Senate is not voting today to give the green light to the Trans-Pacific Partnership or any other trade agreement. As I see it, this is legislation that raises the bar for trade deals and challenges our negotiators to meet it. It will go further than ever before in stripping the secrecy out of trade policy. And it will provide new accountability by protecting our ability to slam the brakes on trade deals that won’t work for our hardworking middle class.

When you put these put these vast improvements together with a next-level enforcement system, you have a progressive, modern approach to trade that throws out the NAFTA playbook and will help trade get done right.

This is a plan that will make trade work better for all Americans, whether they’re a service professional, a business owner, or a worker who punches the time clock at the end of the day. This is especially timely because of the massive increase in consumers around the world with money to spend. They are going to buy computers, helicopters and bicycles. Their companies will buy planes. The list goes on and on. It’s my hope that we have the opportunity to create a fresh new trade policy that increases the prospect of American workers, the best and most competitive on the planet, being able to sell their goods and services to that enormous global market that wants to buy American, to buy Oregon. It just seems to be obvious to me that we should take the opportunity to tap the potential of that market.

I want to thank the Majority Leader for having an open amendment process. And as for this first step, I urge my colleagues to join me in closing the books on NAFTA by beginning debate on this landmark legislation.