Mainers had an opportunity to testify on the recently released Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement last week at a Bangor forum held by the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission. Those who testified claimed, by and large, the state had more to lose than gain by liberalizing trade along the Pacific Rim.
The sweeping trade pact covers 12 nations, including the U.S., that account for about 40 percent of the global economy. President Barack Obama’s administration has argued that reducing tariffs and eliminating other trade barriers will boost commerce across the region, bringing with it large economic gain.
But those at the forum were concerned that tariff reductions — for footwear, in particular — would send jobs overseas. Others worried that local laws and regulations, such as GMO labeling requirements and mining restrictions, could be challenged in corporate tribunals.
For the last decade, the 16-member Citizen Trade Policy Commission has advocated for the state in debates over free trade agreements to ensure Mainers’ concerns are addressed, but its effects have been limited.
Legislators created the commission 11 years ago out of concern that Maine was on the losing end of trade agreements.
After the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in the 1990s, it became the poster child for how trade agreements were eroding manufacturing in Maine and across the U.S. A 2003 report commissioned by the Legislature concluded that while the North American Free Trade Agreement grew exports to Canada and Mexico and attracted foreign investment, Maine sustained a net loss of about 800 jobs.
In response to growing anxiety over trade agreements, Gov. John Baldacci signed the commission into law in May 2004. The law charges the group with assessing the effect of trade agreements on Maine. The trade commission’s members, including legislators, business owners, health care professionals, labor representatives and others, are appointed by the Senate president, House speaker and governor. It has a $38,000 budget this fiscal year.
Additionally, the trade commission keeps Mainers informed of developments with trade pacts, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The group also gathers residents’ input and communicates it to U.S. trade representatives and members of Congress, aiming to give Mainers a voice in trade negotiations.
Few states have trade policy commissions.
Maine is one of just five states with a legislative body that studies the effect of trade agreements. Only New Hampshire, Vermont, Utah and Washington state have similar commissions, according to Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
With the commission, legislators believed Maine would be better positioned than most states to assess the local effect of trade agreements and influence policymakers and U.S. trade representatives.
In November, commission member Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, met with Kanji Yamanouchi, the economic minister of the Japanese embassy in Washington, and shared with him Mainers’ concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s potential effect on environmental standards and job creation.
With the background information acquired through the commission, Guerin said she had “an advantage” in that conversation, which happened at a meeting of the organization Women in Government: She could speak more authoritatively about the trade pact with Yamanouchi than others at that meeting.
But states have little influence in trade negotiations.
Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, state officials have demanded greater participation in trade negotiations because some states lost more than they gained from liberalized trade. While it was designed to provide Maine a voice in negotiations, the trade commission has not always been heard.
In 2005, the year after it formed, the trade commission, along with Maine’s congressional delegation, called for the rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed over their objections.
The trade commission sent numerous letters last year to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative objecting to provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, a proposed trade pact with the European Union, that were ignored. It wasn’t until U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office intervened on the commission’s behalf that it received a response.
“They get it from all directions, I understand that,” Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, who co-chairs the trade commission, said. “All we can do is state our position and the positions of our constituents and hope they hear us out.”
A spokesman for the U.S. trade representative said in an email that the office has addressed concerns raised by the commission in congressional testimony, public speeches and reports, including several on how the Pacific trade pact may benefit Maine.
Commission members recognize they have no authority over how Washington negotiates international trade and little effect on the outcome of trade agreements, good or bad.
“We can’t force anyone to listen to us, but our voice is much louder than other states’ because we have this forum,” Sharon Treat, a member of the trade commission, said.
Commission members did score a victory against provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have hindered health regulations.
The trade commission advocated for a carve-out of tobacco products from a process that allows businesses to sue nations for regulations they claim hurt their investments or future profits.
But it wasn’t alone in this fight: Forty-five state attorneys general, including Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, and Australia, which has been sued by Philip Morris in a trade dispute tribunal over its plain packaging regulation that aims to curb tobacco use, also applied pressure on trade ministers for the tobacco carve-out.
“The fact of the matter is, [the commission] was one of the few strong state voices speaking on this,” Treat said.
Still, it hasn’t helped that trade negotiations have been largely done in secret.
Until last month, the exact language of the 6,000-page Trans-Pacific Partnership was shrouded in secrecy, leaving the trade commission and others guessing about its content. Without access to its text, Treat said the trade commission was hampered in its effort to analyze its potential effects on Maine.
“How do you make something better when it’s kept secret during negotiations?” Treat said.
The Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Committee, created by Congress to advocate for states in trade negotiations, has recommended since 2004 that state and local officials be given access to summaries of draft text of trade agreements to ensure a consensus on their merits.
“If the committee’s recommendations had been implemented, the trade policy commission would be in a much better position to make informed decisions and provide detailed and useful comments, analysis and advice to the U.S. trade representative and to our members of Congress and the Maine Legislature and governor,” Treat, who also serves on the advisory committee, said.
To date, the U.S. trade representative hasn’t adopted the committee’s recommendations.
Now, the public has until February to comment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership before it goes to Congress and, ultimately, the president. But with only an up-or-down vote possible in Congress, there will be no opportunity to change objectionable elements of the trade pact — much less an opportunity for groups such as the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission to meaningfully influence the outcome.