Former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss says the U.S. needs its Asian allies to "pick up the phone" when calling to deal with threats like North Korea. That could be less likely if the U.S. spurns them on TPP, he said. Mr. Chambliss is flanked by UPS CEO David Abney, left, and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman. Photo courtesy of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

Saxby Chambliss knows what it’s like to hold up a big trade negotiation.

The four-term Republican congressman and two-term senator from Georgia says he got downright “parochial” when Europeans tried to “rewrite the farm bill” while he chaired the Senate Agricultural Committee during World Trade Organization in 2007.  

Still, he said lawmakers with objections to the sweeping 12-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have plenty of reasons to put those aside and vote in favor of free trade at a critical time for American interests in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The problem is that opposition to trade usually goes down well with voters — especially now that trade-bashing has gone mainstream in both political parties, Mr. Chambliss said at a luncheon hosted by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

“Politically, it’s pretty easy to vote against this,” Mr. Chambliss said during a discussion that included Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman and United Parcel Service Inc. Chairman and CEO David Abney, who were led in discussion by World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro.

Garnering support has become all the more important during the crucial phase coming up for the broad agreement, which some opponents deride as a giveaway to corporations and a threat to democratic institutions. 

The deal was concluded during closed-door talks in Atlanta in October and signed in New Zealand in February. It includes 12 Pacific Rim countries in Asia and the Americas, from Australia and Vietnam to Mexico, Canada and Peru. President Obama told Congress he plans to call for a vote on the deal sometime at least 30 days from last Friday. 

While promoters are clear on the deal’s benefits, those making the most noise about the pact are more likely to be its opponents.

That’s why the luncheon speakers struck to this refrain: A pact smoothing commerce in 40 percent of the global economy needs all the champions it can get at a time when opposition by both parties’ presidential nominees makes it clear there is a narrow window for passage this year. 

Mr. Abney said that the very competitiveness of U.S. small businesses is at stake in a region where the middle class will grow from some 500 million at the time TPP negotiations started in 2009 to nearly half the world’s population by 2030. 

UPS customers, especially the small and medium-sized companies, need most the streamlined customs procedures and reduced tariffs the pact promises, he said.

The “myth” of the TPP as a corporate giveaway crumbles, he says, when considering that the largest companies already have the capital and the knowhow to navigate the complexities of global commerce. 

“The unsung heroes of this agreement are the small and medium-sized companies,” Mr. Abney said. Later it was pointed out that the TPP is the first trade deal to include a chapter devoted to small businesses, requiring all countries party to the deal to set up board monitoring how these firms are availing themselves of the TPP’s benefits. 

Mr. Abney called for a concerted lobbying effort that points out the benefits of reduced friction on the global trading system.

“This can’t be just UPS, this can’t be a small group of people, because anti-trade is very organized, and people are calling their senators an congresspeople and urging them not to vote for this,” said Mr. Abney, who will embark on his own “TPP tour” of sorts over the next few months, visiting legislators in their home districts and a conducting a flurry of media interviews. 

Mr. Chambliss agreed that TPP supporters, especially executives, should call their legislators, who might not read a thousand-page document but will listen to the job creators in their constituencies, like Mr. Abney. 

“Dave is one of the real drivers of the economy in this state, and when Dave Abney is so forcefully for something like this, there’s got to be a good reason for it, and members of Congress know and understand that,” Mr. Chambliss told Global Atlanta. (And they particularly pay attention to articulately handwritten notes, he added.)

Mayor Kasim Reed, in introducing the panel, said it’s time for advocates of the TPP and exports in general to be the “adults in the room” as they ready for what he sees as a narrow opportunity for the deal during the “lame-duck” session in Congress before the new president is sworn in. 

“We have to be the people who cut through the political rhetoric and all of the noise about how this is a global job-killer, when all of the data says that that’s not true,” he said, noting that exporting companies hire more employees and pay higher wages than those that remain unengaged in global trade.

He acknowledged, however, that this would be an uphill battle. 

“My sense is that this is going to be hard. And we’re really going to have to take an approach that is vote by vote, Democrat and Republican,” the mayor said. 

His sentiments echoed those of Steve Haro, the State Department’s top legislative affairs liaison, who said last month in Atlanta that the public opposition to the pact belies the fact that many lawmakers support it behind closed doors and will act that way once past the elections. 

On the surface, however, the picture is more murky. Republican majority leaders in both houses of Congress have said recently the TPP won’t have a sufficient number of votes until serious concerns are addressed. 

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has been seen as a chief obstructionist, frequently voicing his dissatisfaction with the deal’s pharmaceutical provisions. Legislators from tobacco-producing states are miffed the TPP keeps cigarette giants from using the TPP’s dispute-resolution mechanism to challenge public-health regulations that may harm their business. 

U.S, President Barack Obama, for whom passing the largest U.S. trade deal ever would be a signature achievement, hasn’t been deterred, expressing optimism as recently as last week that the deal would pass during the lame-duck session. He has pointed toward an all-out push in support of the deal in the coming months. 

Ambassador Holleyman, who was intricately involved in five-plus years in the negotiations that wrapped up in Atlanta last October, was confident that the president’s resolve would pay off. 

Mr. Abney, for his part, thought a lame-duck vote was also possible. 

“I believe this can be done. I don’t believe this is going to be easy. I think it can be done by the end of this year. If not, it may get much more difficult, but it’s going to take the work of everyone who believes in free-trade, who believes in this agreement to have their voice heard and to make a difference,” said Mr. Abney, who sits on the President’s Export Council and has been a longtime proponent of the deal. 

All panelists stressed that no trade deal is perfect, especially one among 12 nations, but that the compromises were a small price to pay for one that eliminates 18,000 tariff categories, helps streamline customs processes, introduces “enforceable” labor and environmental standards and sets rules of engagement on controversial issues like the role of state-owned enterprises, intellectual property protection and the growing digital economy. 

“That’s what a high-standard, 21st-century free-trade agreement looks like,” Mr. Holleyman said, echoing a common administration talking point promoting the pact. He noted that the pact tries to encourage a “race to the top rather than a race to the bottom” on standards, ensuring they reflect American values.

And the stakes are high — not just for economic growth but for America’s position in the world, Mr. Chambliss said. 

For one, backing out now would cause a loss of credibility for the U.S., which has asked eight countries to go out on a limb to support the deal. And from national security and trade standpoints, it would give China an opening. 

“There is a void out there right now, and if we don’t fill that void, let me assure you it’s going to be filled,” he said. “China knows the seriousness of this. They read the newspapers too.” 

Mr. Reed made a similar warning, noting that China will pick up the pieces if the U.S. leave its partners in the cold, using the now very public deal in framing negotiating positions for its own trade pacts. (China is already backing the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — which currently includes 16 nations.) 

“We’re better than that,” Mr. Reed said. 

And, knowing that there is no “perfect” trade agreement should help politicians make hard choices, the panelists added. Some less-than-favorable provisions on single issues like pharmaceuticals or tobacco shouldn’t derail the whole deal, Mr. Chambliss said.

“My argument to (legislators from tobacco-producing states) is that ‘Look, my tobacco farmers also grow cotton, they grow peanuts, they grow pecans. There are favorable issues in here that are going to help make up for what you may perceive to be a negative provision.’ And hopefully that will encourage them to support it.” 

He gave one practical example: The TPP would eliminate the 30 percent tariff Georgia’s pecan growers face in Vietnam’s market of more than 90 million people. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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