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Without Rigorous Enforcement, Improving NAFTA Means Nothing

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

When thugs gunned down Óscar Ontiveros Martínez in May, they did more than silence a promising figure in Mexico's beleaguered labor movement.

The 29-year-old's killing sent a warning to anyone still thinking about organizing the mine where Ontiveros once helped to lead a strike.

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How Trump’s New NAFTA Shafts Workers And Consumers Again

“Keep your eye on the ball” is a core principle not only for baseball players but also for us commoners trying to assess exactly what the spinmeisters of global trade are hurling at us. Their deals are and always have been large-scale hustles, filled with hypocrisy, deceit and greed. Promoted as fair and good for all, they’re invariably rigged with profiteering schemes that lock into law advantages for corporations over the common good of consumers, the environment, labor, independent businesses, governments and all other democratic forces.

Further, they are works of deliberate deception, drafted in strict secrecy and couched in page after page of arcane legalese that intentionally obscures the corporate thievery so We the People don’t know that we’ve been had until it’s too late. They hide the ball to keep you, me and even Congress from seeing specifically who’ll profit and who’ll pay. So, heads up, for here comes another sucker pitch.

“A historic transaction,” Trump grandiloquently hailed his Afta-NAFTA handiwork in an April tweet, lauding the 1,809-page United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as “the most important trade deal we’ve ever made by far.” Backed by a coalition of some 200 corporate and Wall Street powerhouses, Trump demanded that Congress quickly ratify the USMCA “so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property.” “Once again,” swooned Fox personality Laura Ingraham, “Trump delivers.”

Yes, but what … and for whom?

Big Pharma: If the USMCA passes as currently drafted, it would require the governments of the U.S., Mexico and Canada to guarantee — and even extend — Big Pharma’s monopoly price-setting power. Specifically, the deal gives drugmakers 10 years of exclusive marketing for critical “biologic” meds that millions of people need — in addition to the 20-year monopoly that U.S. patent laws already grant. Trump’s deal would prevent generic competitors from offering cheaper versions for an extra decade while also shackling Canadians and Mexicans to the pricing racket that Pharma already runs in the U.S.

Big Oil: Although the USMCA largely eliminates the anti-democratic and unjust system of dispute-deciding corporate-run “courts,” seven oil behemoths (including Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron) would retain their NAFTA-granted access to these odious tribunals. One particular concern is that the giants will use these kangaroo courts to block Mexican efforts to strengthen environment and health protections and address the climate crisis.

Big Bosses: The USMCA would finally outlaw Mexico’s notorious company-run “unions” that allow workers no control or even participation. While the deal prohibits these fraudulent labor units, it provides no way to monitor, much less enforce, corporate compliance.

Big Food: The original NAFTA included a literal gag rule. It allowed cheaply produced Mexican beef and other meat to be sold in the U.S. — even if it didn’t meet our food safety standards. Trump’s “fantastic” redo of NAFTA keeps this rule prohibiting our supposedly sovereign government from setting our own health standards for meat sold to our consumers.

Congress must obviously kill this thing, right?

Hmmm … not so fast. Even with all the uglies and absurdities in the USMCA, progressive strategists see enough pretties and potential for fixes that it could become one of the only positives to emerge from Trump Hell. As Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s savvy band of trade jujitsu artists puts it, “Improbably, things are going quite well.” Prettiest of all is the USMCA’s whacking down of NAFTA’s most repugnant component: “investor-state dispute settlement” tribunals. These autocratic, plutocratic, corporate-controlled “courts” empower multinational corporations to obtain unlimited taxpayer dollars through specious lawsuits claiming that their special NAFTA privileges are restricted by the people’s democratically enacted laws — laws intended to protect consumers, workers, the environment and other social/economic interests. The investor-state dispute settlement provision is an anti-democratic abomination, and gutting it would truly be a huge step forward — one worth taking while we can.

Further, if we can strengthen the USMCA’s labor and environmental standards — and make them strictly enforceable — they might counter corporate America’s race-to-the-bottom outsourcing that converts middle-class U.S. jobs into Mexican sweatshop servitude. And of course, the absurd goodies for Big Pharma must be removed. But the fight, then, is not simply to reject the USMCA but instead to expose its flaws, democratize it and force improvements. That’s not easy, but it’s doable.

Yes, trade fights can be complex and tedious, but pay attention to this one. The USMCA is a momentous battle that’s more about people’s democratic power than trade. It unites folks across the left-right political spectrum, it’s worth the fight, and it’s winnable — if we team up to wrangle our Congress critters to oppose Trump’s corporatized version and add essential democratizing improvements. Let’s do it!

CNN’s Urban Pushed Trade Agreement Days After Registering To Lobby For It

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

On April 1, CNN political commentator David Urban registered to lobby for the passage of a trade agreement backed by President Donald Trump. Just three days later, Urban exploited his CNN employment by touting the agreement unprompted on Jake Tapper’s weekday program — without any disclosure of his direct financial conflict of interest.

Urban is a Republican operative and the president of American Continental Group, a lobbying firm that took in over $13 million in lobbying fees last year. Urban also worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and he is helping advise his 2020 reelection campaign.

Trump has been trying to pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Due to concerns about the measure’s prospects in Congress, Republicans formed the 501(c)(4) group Trade Works for America to pressure members of Congress, especially Democrats, to support it.

As part of its efforts, Trade Works for America retained Urban and American Continental Group to specifically lobby on USMCA, with the effective registration date of April 1.

Just a few days later, Urban appeared on the April 4 edition of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper and said that the USMCA has been “getting some momentum, some traction with Democrats in the House” and Trump’s threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border would “kind of blow that up” and be “a tragedy”:

DAVID URBAN (CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND LOBBYING COMPANY PRESIDENT): I would say that one of the president’s and this administration’s objectives, main objectives coming in the next several months is the ratification of the USMCA. And I think closing the border would have gone a lot — a far way in undermining that.

JAKE TAPPER (HOST): That’s the new NAFTA, the replacement for NAFTA?

URBAN: The new NAFTA, right. I think there’s — it’s getting some momentum, some traction with Democrats in the House. I think it’s moving somewhat forward, and to kind of blow that up would have been a tragedy.

Neither CNN nor Urban disclosed that he is being paid to lobby for the trade agreement.

Urban has repeatedly shown a blatant disregard for ethics during his CNN appearances. He advocated for a military strike against Iran (he lobbies for defense contractors). He attacked pro-environment policies and praised Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental protections (he lobbies for fossil fuel-related companies). And he specifically raised the National Association of Home Builders’ objection to a Republican tax plan (he lobbies for the organization).

After criticism from Media Matters, CNN began a panel segment with Urban last Sunday by stating: “We have to disclose that you are a corporate lobbyist who has clients in the defense and energy industries.” Urban responded by laughing and saying, “We get in trouble. We always get in trouble. I get in trouble.”

But as Urban’s USMCA episode shows, that disclosure doesn’t really suffice and his financial conflicts of interest aren’t just limited to “the defense and energy industries.” American Continental Group lists over a dozen issue areas that it works on, from commerce to manufacturing to transportation.

Additionally, Urban registered as a foreign agent last year to, among other things, “provide advice, counsel and assist Emirates Global Aluminum PJSC,” a state-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates, “in a license request to the United States Department of the Treasury” on behalf of a subsidiary.

Urban clearly doesn’t care about media ethics or conflicts of interest. The question is whether CNN cares, and if it does, why it continues to employ the president and part-owner of a large lobbying company despite his past duplicity and his countless real and potential financial conflicts of interest.

The network did not respond to a request for comment.

IMAGE: CNN commentator, lobbyist, and former top Trump campaign aide David Urban.

The NAFTA Report That Could Do More Damage Than Mueller

With all the coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigaiton and still-confidential report, President Donald Trump’s political future does not appear to be closely tied to the Russia investigation. Without ground-shaking conclusions that completely reframed his presidency for the Republican Party and is leadership, there’s never been much chance that the report could lead to him being removed from office.

But there’s another forthcoming report that really could do serious damage to the president, even if there’s been almost no coverage of it so far. It’s a report from the International Trade Commission on the future effects of Trump renegotiated version of NAFTA, which the president calls the USMCA

As the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale reported, the ITC report is set to come out on April 19. And few expect it to show much of an upside for the United States or Trump.

Dale wrote:

At best, experts say, the ITC report expected by April 19 is likely to show a very small positive impact.

‘“He’s been touting this as moving from the worst trade agreement ever to the biggest, best agreement, and there is no way the results of the USITC can be spun to say that the USMCA is anything other than a small change from the status quo,” said Jennifer Hillman, a Georgetown Law professor and a former senior official with the U.S. trade representative’s office.

“The debate in Congress is whether that small change is still worth doing

A negative or mediocre conclusion from the ITC could make it harder to convince skeptical Democrats that it is worth taking the political risk of voting for a top Trump priority. Such a conclusion could give members “cover” if they are already predisposed to vote no, said Robert Fisher, a U.S. negotiator for the original NAFTA and now managing director of Hills and Co.

If this is right, it could deal a significant blow to Trump’s support and become a drag on him in the run-up to the 2016 election.

It may seem a distant memory now, but trade was a major theme of Trump’s 2016 campaign. He insisted that the country was getting ripped off in its trade deals — none of which were worse than NAFTA, in his view. And this wasn’t a mere throw-away line at rallies. His central message was that American leaders had been stupid and reckless in agreeing to these deals, and that he was the only brilliant dealmaker who could storm into office and fix the problem.

How much this message really helped lead Trump to victory in 2016 is up for debate, but he clearly thought it was important, and it may have been key to his winning the crucial midwestern swing states that gave him an electoral college majority.

But if the pending report shows that Trump’s attempt to renegotiate NAFTA was a dud, he could likewise pay for it in 2020. The deal, already facing headwinds in the House of Representatives, will likely never be approved by Congress if the report is negative. Were the report to show the deal would be a resounding win for the United States and Congress rejected it anyway, Trump might be able to turn this to his advantaged. But if Democrats can rightly say that the most comprehensive report suggests the deal would be a loser for the United States, Trump’s support could take a hit where he can least afford to fall behind.

Dale noted that some observers are critical of the methodology the USITC is expected to use in crafting the report, arguing that it doesn’t necessarily account for all the agreement’s benefits. But these details may not matter much if Trump’s main goal is looking like a winner.

One sign that Trump’s allies are nervous about the issue is that supporters of the deal are already downplaying the report.

“It’s just a report,” Rick Dearborn, executive director of the Pass USMCA Coalitiontold Dale.