Thursday, December 12, 2019

Battle Won; War Lost

A "data journalist" at The Economist and the founder of Vox have the same ominous thought:

Maybe yes, maybe no, but Donald Trump got significantly closer this week to re-election- and it has nothing (directly) to do with impeachment. David Dayen, now writing for The American Prospect, explains that House Speaker Nancy

Pelosi got AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka to sign off on the U.S.–Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), handing Trump a political victory on one of his signature issues. Predictably, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham immediately gushed, calling USMCA “the biggest and best trade agreement in the history of the world.”

It’s, um, not that. Economically, USMCA is a nothingburger; even the most rose-colored analysis with doubtful assumptions built in shows GDP growth of only 0.06 percent per year. There’s one good provision: the elimination of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision that allowed corporations to sue governments in secret tribunals over trade violations. There’s one bad provision: the extension of legal immunity for tech platforms over user-generated content, put into a trade deal for the first time. This will make the immunity shield, codified in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, much harder to alter in the future. Pelosi has called this deal a “template” for future agreements, though trade reformers have called it a bare minimum floor.

Pelosi tried to remove the immunity shield, but abandoned the request. She did succeed in removing a provision for Big Pharma that extended exclusivity periods for biologics. The Sierra Club has termed the deal an “environmental failure” that will not have binding standards on clean air and water or climate goals. But the threshold question on the USMCA was always going to be labor enforcement: would the labor laws imposed on Mexico hold, improving their lot while giving U.S. manufacturing workers a chance to compete? There was also the open question of why the U.S. would reward Mexico with a trade deal update when trade unionists in the country continue to be kidnapped and killed.

In his statement, Trumka lauds the labor enforcement, noting provisions that make it easier to prove violations (including violence against workers), rules of evidence for disputes, and inspections of Mexican facilities, a key win. But I’ve been told that the AFL-CIO did not see the details of the text before signing off, which is unforgivable, especially on trade where details matter. There was no vote by union leaders, just a briefing from the AFL-CIO.

At least one union, the Machinists, remains opposed, and others were noncommittal until they see text. The Economic Policy Institute, which is strongly tied to labor, called the agreement “weak tea at best,” a tiny advance on the status quo that will not reverse decades of outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

So why did Trumka, who Pelosi gave the ability to approve or reject the USMCA, decide to support it? Labor has felt self-imposed pressure to say yes to a trade deal, to counter the Chamber of Commerce’s claims that they’re purely contrarian. Trumka may have seen this as minimally harmful and a good way to rebut the charge. Plus, the significant minority of labor’s rank and file’s supports Trump, another cross-pressure that may have been a factor.

Labor is not the only actor with self-imposed pressure to say "yes" to some sort of trade deal.  Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill had stated "the speaker has been working diligently with his (Trump's) trade representative to advance Democrats further down a path to yes on the USMCA."

Evidently Speaker Pelosi already had decided to approve a new trade deal whatever its composition. "To advance Democrats further down a path to yes" was a signal to the Administration that the Speaker previously had decided to goad her caucus into supporting a deal, any deal.  We wanted to be "on the path to 'yes,'" Pelosi stated, because details were less important that getting something passed and being given credit for bipartisanship. That surely will be seized by Donald Trump, abetted by a media eager to assure Americans that comity is possible under current leadership.

Dayen continues

While the economics are negligible (and potentially harmful on tech policy), on the politics activists are losing their mind at the prospect of a Trump signing ceremony, with labor by his side, on a deal that he will construe as keeping promises to Midwest voters. “Any corporate Democrat who pushed to get this agreement passed that thinks Donald Trump is going to share the credit for those improvements is dangerously gullible,” said Yvette Simpson, CEO of Democracy for America, in a statement. Only a small handful of Democratic centrists were pushing for a USMCA vote, based mostly on the idea that they had to “do something” to show that they could get things done in Congress. Now they’ve got it, and they’ll have to live with the consequences.

This urgency is self-imposed. Democrats are not responsible to get things done in Congress, which includes both the Democratic-dominated House and the thoroughly Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats are largely responsible for the House, and they've been busy and productive throughout this term.   Even with passage of the USMCA deal- maybe even especially with passage of the USMCA- congressional Democrats will be blamed by Trump and other Republicans for allegedly obsessing with impeachment and ignoring "the American people."

Freshman Democrats elected in districts won by Donald Trump are edgy and insecure about impeachment and the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tasked with reinforcing that majority, had lobbied Pelosi in favor of the agreement. Nancy Pelosi is not running for President, nor is she particularly attached to any Democratic contender for that office. She is Speaker of the House and her primary objective is to ensure her party maintain control of the chamber, preferably with an expanded majority.

The DCCC chairwoman, Representative Cheri Bustos of Colorado, has promoted a policy which the Speaker happily accepted. However, it is transparently reactive and defensive, which will give aid and comfort to the President as he campaigns for re-election. On Tuesday morning, Pelosi told her caucus "we stayed on this, and we ate their lunch.”  Were she accurate and forthcoming, she would have added "and President Trump will eat us for dessert."

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