On Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) threw the latest punch in her ongoing grudge match with President Obama over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and related Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, this time in the form of a 12-page report (15 pages with endnotes) entitled “Broken Promises: Decades of Failure to Enforce Labor Standards in Free Trade Agreements.”
The report details the many claims made about labor provisions in previous trade deals, and the failure of those trade deals to live up to them. The toll that trade deals have taken on U.S. workers is the backbone of opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and to the TPA legislation that would allow it and other trade deals to be approved by a simple majority, without amendments.
At Tuesday’s White House daily briefing, I asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest for the administration’s reaction to the report, and to Sen. Warren’s continued, persistent opposition to the trade deals:
Josh Earnest: “I’ve read through the news coverage of the report, I don’t actually think it was on TPP, I think it was on a range of other trade agreements, which she believes .. according to the reports, that certain provisions related to labor standards have not been robustly enforced in a manner in which she believes is appropriate. And the response that the President has routinely had when faced with this question has been to say that the TPP agreement that’s being negotiated is not NAFTA ad it’s not any of these other trade agreements that have been enacted, it’s a different one. Uh, and what it contains are higher labor standards and environmental standards and ensures that they are enforceable. That they’re written into the agreement. So those who are concerend with the way previous trade agreements have been enforced when it comes to labor provisions should find TPP something that they can support. Because it will include enforceable labor provisions that will be enforced in the same way that oter elements of the agreement will be enforced.”
Tommy Christopher: “I know it’s not about TPP per se, but the strong implication is that the president is making the same promises that were made before, and that he’s not going to keep them.”
Josh Earnest: “And this is a wholly different agreement.”
President Obama’s consistent response to this particular criticism has been that opponents of TPP and TPA are fighting the battles of the past, which this report certainly seems to suggest. President Obama has said that he won’t sign a bad trade deal, but what Warren’s report seems to be saying is that there’s no such thing as a good one, at least not one we’ve seen.
Substantively, Earnest’s response was predictable, but its tone revealed the continued strain that this disagreement has placed on relations between the White House and the Warren Wing, as did his reply to my final question. Things took an ugly turn last week when Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) accused President Obama of sexism for referring to Sen. Warren simply as “Elizabeth.”
At the time, Josh Earnest expressed confidence that Sherrod Brown would “find a way to apologize,” so at Tuesday’s briefing, I asked if the way to that apology had made itself evident:
“Ah, you should ask him.”
On its face, this seems like a boilerplate non-answer, but it can really only mean one thing. Brown hasn’t apologized publicly, and if he had done so privately, Earnest’s response would have been something like “I don’t have any private conversations to read out to you.” Actually, it would have been exactly like that. Sherrod Brown isn’t saying (so far), but I’d bet good money that he hasn’t apologized, but more importantly, that the White House is pissed that he hasn’t apologized, and wants him to be asked about it.