In the past nothing could dampen cocktail party chatter faster than bringing up some world trade issue. Then along came Ross Perot warning of a “giant sucking sound” from Mexico if the U.S. approved NAFTA and American manufacturers headed south of the border, taking with them millions of America jobs.
Today trade issues are among the hottest political issues in Washington. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the latest trade deal on the table, dividing the Democratic Party and making strange bedfellows of President Obama and Senate Republicans, who are pushing for the deal.
Adding to the confusion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a leading opponent of TPP, finds herself on the same side of the issue with some right-wing talk show hosts, who share her strong opposition.
One issue is jobs. There are fears that lowering trade barriers will mean U.S. workers will be competing with much cheaper labor in Asia. Erosion of national sovereignty is another concern for some, who see U.S. laws taking a backseat to international consensus.
In fact, there's growing concern about the latter issue.
When the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last month that America's country or origin labeling (COOL) law violates international trade agreements and must be changed, it struck a nerve. Congress passed the law in 2002 and expanded it in 2008, to give consumers information about where certain agricultural products, in this case fresh meat, came from. Congress is now considering legislation to repeal the law.
That doesn't sit well with Joel Joseph, Chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation. Joseph claims the WTO is basically a secret organization with hand-picked delegates from around the world. It does not promote U.S. interests, he argues.
“WTO decisions make a mockery of U.S. and European laws designed to protect the health of consumers and the environment,” Joseph said in a statement. The WTO is unfair, unethical and undemocratic and needs to be overhauled.”
Canada and Mexico, the U.S.'s NAFTA trading partners, brought the complaint before the WTO, claiming COOL is an illegal restraint to free trade. The WTO ruled in favor of the complaint, meaning Canada and Mexico may impose punitive tariffs on U.S. products if COOL remains unchanged.
Conflict of interest
Joseph charges the WTO ruling is tainted, claiming that 1 of the 3 judges appointed to decide the matter is Recardo Ramírez-Hernández, a Mexican citizen who Joseph says has represented Mexico on trade matters.
“Even with a biased group, the WTO appellate panel recognized that the COOL measure is an internal measure of the United States, as opposed to a customs or border measure,” Joseph said.
And as Joseph points out, the law requires retailers in the United States to affix labels providing country of origin information on certain products, regardless of whether the products are imported or domestically produced.
Joseph is hardly alone in his defense of COOL. A coalition of 283 farm, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the U.S. has called for Congress to refrain from repealing the consumer legislation.
“If Congress repeals COOL, then the next time consumers go shopping for a steak or chicken for their families, they won’t be able to tell where that product came from,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “That's completely unacceptable. Consumers want more information about their food, not less.”
Joseph says the U.S. should withdrawal from the WTO, something that is highly unlikely. Still, it points to the passions trade issues now arouse and suggest an increasingly difficult path for future trade deals, including TPP.