Obama's Top Trade Official Nominee: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Yesterday was the Senate Finance Committee's confirmation hearing for Michael Froman, Obama's pick to be the next U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
If confirmed, Froman would replace Ron Kirk, who left his post as the top U.S. trade official in March to take a job at a corporate law firm that specializes in defending multinational corporations against claims of vast environmental damage, including helping Chevron evade payment of $18 billion in damages for decades of pollution in Ecuador's Amazon.
We've been a tad skeptical of Obama's pick of Froman, given his Wall Street roots and his role in crafting the much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the deficit-plagued Korea FTA.
Here's what went down at yesterday's hearing, divided by the time-honored categories of good, bad, and ugly:
The Good (maybe)
- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) raised the fact that "Wall Street and industry-friendly European regulators are now seeking to use any means they can to roll back some of the reforms" enacted since the 2008 financial crisis to rein in banks' excessive risk-taking. Specifically, he mentioned that big banks on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to use the newly-hatched Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) as a backdoor means of attacking controls on risky derivatives, too-big-to-fail regulations and other Wall Street reforms included in the Dodd-Frank reregulatory law. Froman responded by promising, "There is nothing that we are going to do through a trade agreement to weaken our financial regulation, to roll back Dodd-Frank, or to roll back the efforts that the administration and Congress have worked on for the last four years to reform our financial regulatory system here." Really? If honored, Froman's promise would represent an about-face in U.S. trade policy. USTR is currently pushing provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would prohibit bans on risky derivatives, counteract too-big-to-fail regulations, and bar capital controls -- the very deregulatory moves that Froman says are now off the table. Will Froman halt USTR's legacy of helping banks use "trade" deals to water down financial regulation? Given Froman's Citigroup stomping grounds, we're skeptical. But so long as Froman's in the business of promising change, we're in the business of holding him to that promise.
- Sen. Brown also highlighted the incredible proposal to include the extreme investor privileges of past NAFTA-style deals in the U.S.-EU deal (TAFTA). The proposal -- to empower foreign corporations to circumvent domestic courts and directly challenge health and environmental policies before extrajudicial tribunals authorized to order taxpayer compensation -- sparked a flood of critical comments from the public to USTR last month. Brown asked, "Do we need an extrajudicial and private enforcement system when U.S. and European property rights are...advanced and protected already?" Froman dodged the question, saying the matter was a "topic worthy of discussion." More aptly, it's a topic worthy of an answer. The appropriate response to Brown's yes-or-no question would have been, "No. Empowering foreign corporations to completely circumvent our courts is unnecessary for investor protection, insults basic democratic tenets, and threatens consumers' health and taxpayers' wallets."
- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) raised the extraordinary secrecy shrouding the Obama administration's trade negotiations to date. Wyden has blasted USTR's incredible decision to keep the negotiating text of the sweeping TPP pact, affecting everything from food safety to Internet freedom, hidden from the U.S. public and even from members of Congress. Not even the Bush administration attempted that degree of secrecy. Wyden asked, "If confirmed, will you make sure that the public...gets a clear and updated description of what trade negotiators are seeking to obtain in the negotiations so that we can make this process more transparent in the future?" Wyden further asked that negotiating texts be placed online. Froman responded by saying he agrees with the principle of transparency. But instead of committing to a meaningful fulfillment of that principle by releasing the TPP text online (as done under Bush), he reiterated USTR's general desire to seek input from "stakeholders." It is of course difficult for stakeholders to provide meaningful input if they cannot see the thing in which they have a stake.
- Froman (and Obama) plan to pursue Fast Track: "If confirmed, I will engage with you to renew Trade Promotion Authority. TPA is a critical tool." Fast Track, cynically rebranded "Trade Promotion Authority," is indeed a tool. A battering ram sort of tool. A tool that, before allowed to expire, was used to shove unpopular "trade" deals like NAFTA through Congress by empowering the executive branch to negotiate and sign the sweeping pacts before sending them to Congress for a no-amendments, limited-debate, expedited, post-facto vote. Click here for a full analysis of Fast Track's democracy-curtailing, NAFTA-enabling track record. If past is precedent, any attempt from Froman to refurbish this antiquated legislative ramrod would prove vastly unpopular among the U.S. public and Congress. We'll see if Froman, despite the political liability, makes good on his threat to, as one of his first acts, pick a Fast Track fight.