Earlier this evening, the Senate voted to confirm Obama's nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, a man that the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute described as an "excellent choice" for the position. The Senate showed him some bipartisan love with a vote of 93 to 4 to 1. Carl Levin (D-MI), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) voted aginst him. Why do I have three parts to the vote, you ask? Barbara Boxer (D-CA) merely voted present, which (to me) implies an uneasiness with the nominee but an unwillingness to vote against the president.
Why should we care about the U.S. Trade Representative, a position that gets less attention in the news than many other cabinet appointments? Well, we should because Froman, the current Assistant to the President of the United States and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs, has been actively involved in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal ("NAFTA on steroids") and will become its chief negotiator. To understand the significance, we need to learn a bit about Froman's background and a bit about the TPP.
Froman was the Chief of Staff to Robert Rubin at the U.S. Treasury under Bill Clinton from 1997 to 1999. Robert Rubin, the force behind Clinton's neoliberal economic agenda, presided over the deregulation of the financial industry in the late 1990s. The Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin has described "Rubinomics" as the "combination of deregulatory zeal, deficit obsession, free tradeism and general coziness with fat-cat Wall Street bankers" epitomized by Rubin. Over the past few years, Robert Rubin has been shilling for austerity as well, bringing his influence to Brookings's Hamilton Project and the Center for American Progress, the latter which only abandoned its austerity crusade this past month.
Rubin's push for deregulation under Clinton culminated in the passage of the Financial Services Act of 1999, which entailed the repeal of Glass-Steagall. This act allowed banks to "affiliate with financial services" and allowed a financial holding company to operate several different subsidiaries relating to financial services. It also enabled Citibank and Travelers to finalize their 1998 merger and officially become Citigroup Corporation; the bill was, for all practical purposes, designed with Citi in mind. Having created his own new source of lucre, Rubin left the Treasury to work for the newly-created Citigroup, and Froman followed. Froman served as a managing director at Citigroup, President and Chief Executive Officer of CitiInsurance, and head of Emerging Markets Strategy at Citigroup. You may remember Citigroup from such recent events such as the global financial crisis and the lack of accountability that followed.
Even more troubling is the aforementioned Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal the Obama administration has been negotiating in closed-door talks with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam--and perhaps soon Japan and China. The only publicly available information about the TPP has come through leaks, and the administration has kept members of Congress minimally informed as well. The administration has prohibited Congressional staffers from reviewing the full text and from discussing its specific terms with trade experts and reporters. The corporations that would benefit from the TPP have been, of course, embraced with open arms into the negotiations, and labor and civil society groups have been allowed into talks only if they promise to keep all negotiations confidential and not publicly speak out against them.
Here's a taste of what we know so far about the TPP (courtesy of Public Citizen):
• Foreign corporations would be able to attack member nations’ health and environmental laws before foreign tribunals to demand taxpayer compensation for policies they believe undermine their future profits.
• Large pharmaceutical companies would have longer monopoly control on drugs, effectively cutting off access from millions in developing countries and raising prices here at home.
• No more Buy America or Buy Local preferences.
• Member countries would have to accept food that does not meet national safety standards and would have to limit food labeling (such as for GMOs).
• Internet service providers would be required to “police” user-activity (Think SOPA/PIPA), and individual violators would be treated the same as large-scale for-profit violators.
• The TPP would entail backdoor financial regulation, prohibiting bans on risky financial services and undermining efforts to end “too big to fail.”
Last month, during a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Elizabeth Warren questioned the head of the Export-Import Bank about the backdoor financial deregulation that appears to be in the TPP. Last week, she sent a letter to Froman demanding more transparency in the negotiating process. Froman denied the request.
Earlier today, Warren announced that she would oppose Froman's confirmation, referencing his rejection of her calls for greater transparency:
For months, the Trade Representative who negotiates on our behalf has been unwilling to provide any public access to the composite bracketed text relating to the negotiations. The composite bracketed text includes proposed language from the United States and also other countries, and it serves as the focal point for negotiations. The Trade Representative has allowed Members of Congress to access the text, and I appreciate that. But that is no substitute for public transparency.As Warren notes, even the Bush administration provided more transparency in its trade negotiations than the Most Transparent Administration Ever has.
I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant. In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it. This argument is exactly backwards. If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.
I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too.
I asked the President’s nominee to be Trade Representative — Michael Froman – three questions: First, would he commit to releasing the composite bracketed text? Or second, if not, would he commit to releasing just a scrubbed version of the bracketed text that made anonymous which country proposed which provision. (Note: Even the Bush Administration put out the scrubbed version during negotiations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.)
Third, I asked Mr. Froman if he would provide more transparency behind what information is made to the trade office’s outside advisors. Currently, there are about 600 outside advisors that have access to sensitive information, and the roster includes a wide diversity of industry representatives and some labor and NGO representatives too. But there is no transparency around who gets what information and whether they all see the same things, and I think that’s a real problem.
Mr. Froman’s response was clear: No, no, no. He will not commit to make this information available so the public can track what is going on.
I thank Warren--along with Levin, Manchin, and Sanders--for voting against Froman and for transparency and democratic accountability instead. Sanders, in particular, has been the only senator to take a stand from the left against the worst of Obama's nominees like Jacob Lew and John Brennan. We need more like him--and like Warren--in the Senate.