Teachable Instant: Hot Debate over Trans-Pacific Partnership

This short (15-minute) classroom activity uses a 2-minute video and discussion to explore the growing controversy over the Trans-Pacific Partnership 12-nation trade agreement.   

The News

Ask if students have heard about the furious debate now underway about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Elicit or explain that the TPP, if passed, would be the largest trade agreement in history. The Obama administration is trying to get authority from Congress to "fast-track" the 12-nation treaty through Congress, which means that elected officials would not be able to vote on individual provisions of the treaty or make amendments, only vote on it as a whole.
The TPP is strongly supported by President Obama, who has argued that it is essential for helping American businesses "sell more American products overseas," creating new jobs in the U.S.  President Obama maintains that the trade deal is needed because it will allow U.S.-based companies to outmaneuver China on trade rules. Many Republicans and some Democrats agree with the president. 
However, the TPP faces powerful and growing opposition from a wide range of grassroots, religious, consumer and environmental groups, unions, Latino organizations, most Democrats, and some Republicans. This opposition has gotten stronger as parts of the TPP - which has been negotiated in secret over the past five years - have been leaked. 
Read to students the following excerpt from a New York Times story based on the leaked documents: 

 An ambitious 12-nation trade accord pushed by President Obama would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment "expectations" and hurt their business, according to a classified document.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership — a cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s remaining economic agenda — would grant broad powers to multinational companies operating in North America, South America and Asia. Under the accord, still under negotiation but nearing completion, companies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings — federal, state or local — before tribunals organized under the World Bank or the United Nations.

Video: An Argument Against the TPP

Economist Robert Reich outlines (and draws) the argument against the TPP in this 2-minute video. Reich was secretary of labor under President Clinton.
After watching the video, ask students: 

  • What do you think of Robert Reich’s argument against the TPP?

Explain that the Obama administration insists that Reich and others are wrong about the TPP. 

In a Whitehouse blog, Jeff Zients, Director of the National Economic Council, said that the agreement  provides a dispute resolution process that "allows for an impartial, law-based approach to resolve conflicts and has been important to encouraging development, rule of law, and good governance around the world. [It] does not undermine U.S. sovereignty, change U.S. law, nor grant any new substantive rights to multinational companies." 

Zients argues that the TPP will "make it absolutely clear that governments can regulate in the public interest, including with regard to health, safety and the environment."

Secrecy: Yes or no? 

Defenders of the TPP say that it was negotiated in secret (except for the several hundred corporations that were consulted on it) because opening it up for debate and change in all 12 countries would surely doom it.
And it is true that the more information is leaked about the trade deal, the stronger the opposition becomes. "The government doesn’t want you to read this massive new trade agreement. It’s top secret," said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. "Why? Here’s the real answer people have given me: 'We can’t make this deal public because if the American people saw what was in it, they would be opposed to it.'"
Ask students:

  • Do you think trade deals like the TPP should be negotiated in secret?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think trade deals should be "fast-tracked" through Congress? Why or why not?

Optional follow up activities:

  • Ask students to investigate what has been leaked about the TPP and how this has affected the debate.
  • Split the class into four teams, each playing one of the roles below. Teams will first research their group’s views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then argue together for their position in class discussion.  Groups are:

1.       Republicans/conservatives supporting TPP
2.       Republicans/conservatives opposing TPP
3.       Democrats/progressives supporting TPP
4.       Democrats/progressives opposing TPP