LI Congressional Delegation Split on Whether to Back Obama on Controversial Trade Pact

kathleen rice
Rep. Kathleen Rice shortly after being elected in 2015.

Congress is set to vote late Friday afternoon on whether to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority so he can negotiate a whopping trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) that involves the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. The president has said the trade pact is a progressive step—critics say it’s a job-killer perpetrated by multinational corporations to rip off workers and override consumer protections.

One problem facing the public as they try to understand what could be the world’s largest economic trade agreement ever negotiated is that “members of Congress can read the text in a secure room but cannot discuss its contents publicly,” as Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and a vice president at the Poynter Institute, recently pointed out in an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times. “Representatives from about 600 private corporations are said to have access to the document via a secure portal. Yet the public is excluded.”

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) likened the secure room to “the Bat Cave.”

With the voting deadline drawing near, support for the fast-track measure has crossed party lines, splitting the president from those who might otherwise routinely back him and making unlikely alliances of politicians who normally have no position in common, as shown by Long Island’s divided Congressional delegation.

Rep. Israel, Long Island’s senior Democrat in Congress, finds himself in lonely opposition to his own party’s president as Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) are joining with Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), Long Island’s senior Republican Congressional member, and possibly Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who was still undecided as of Thursday night.

“Yeah, it looks like I’ll be the lone vote on this,” said Rep. Israel to the Press. “But I don’t mind being lonely; I just want to make sure I’m right.”

Explaining his opposition, Israel said he’s voted against multi-lateral trade deals when George W. Bush was president, too, so it has nothing to do with party loyalty but with what’s best for his constituents and the economy.

“This trade deal doesn’t give us long-lasting prosperity and stability,” he said. “It gives 11 other countries long-lasting prosperity and stability and that’s my problem with it.”

He wouldn’t criticize his Democratic colleagues, particularly Rep. Rice, who just won her first election to the House. “She represents her district, I represent my district,” he said. “We’re not always going to agree on everything.”

Last weekend Rep. Rice created a stir when she wrote an op-ed for The Hill, a publication that covers Congress, announcing that she’d switched sides on the TPP and fast-track. In January she’d added her name to a letter opposing granting the president “almost unfettered power” to complete the kind of trade agreement that “has led to the exploitation of the American worker.” By siding with the mainstream House Republicans she sparked a protest at her Garden City office Monday afternoon with more than 200 anti-trade deal activists reportedly shouting “Rice-a-phony” among other creative chants.

“I’ve spent the past five months educating myself about this issue so I could cut through all the misinformation, and I’m confident this is the right decision for working families and small businesses in our district,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Nassau) in a statement to the Press. “I’ve always supported organized labor and I always will, but I make decisions based on facts, not political threats.”

Freshman Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin had reportedly signed a letter in March calling for “swift action” on fast-track but that’s as far as he’s gone publicly.

“The Congressman is working on a few outstanding questions, which hopefully he will be getting answered in the next 48 hours,” said Jennifer DiSiena, his spokesperson, on Wednesday. Asked where he stood Thursday night, we were told to wait until Friday. “Best to put him as undecided,” she said, adding that the Congressman has read both the fast-track legislation as well as the current text of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.

While Rep. Meeks has been in favor of granting the president fast-track authority for months, his spokesman said, the Congressman did not respond to requests that he comment on the critics’ complaints about the secrecy surrounding the deal.

“Part of my difficulty with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is that you basically have to go to the Bat Cave to read it, and that’s not sufficiently transparent,” said Rep. Israel. “A bilateral deal is complicated enough. An 11-nation trade deal where you have environmental issues, human rights issues and issues of competitiveness deserves more than an up or down vote within 90 days. It deserves scrutiny. Fast-track doesn’t afford that kind of scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats in the House have been very outspoken in their criticism of the president for pushing for fast-track authority to get this sweeping trade pact approved. As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), one of the opponents of the measure, told The Hill, “We don’t live in a cloister where the only people who can get in are the captains of industry and the titans of Wall Street.” Echoing that sentiment was Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) who told The Hill that it was up to Democrats to defeat the bill and “save President Obama from his advisers.”

Across the country organized labor and liberal political groups have rallied against the deal, claiming it will hurt American workers. The AFL-CIO has run ads claiming that “fast track kills jobs, drives down wages, and weakens competition.” Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has said that the TPP could affect 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. To learn more details about the deal, his group is attempting to raise a $100,000 “bounty” to obtain more text of the trade documents. So far they’ve published three leaked chapters with 26 more still remaining secret.

Two conservative Republicans, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) have written why they oppose the fast-track authority, which has already passed the Senate.

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership resembles a treaty more than a trade deal,” they wrote. “And like a treaty, it confers the power to both compel and restrict changes to U.S. policy, to commit the U.S. to new international obligations, and to cede sovereign authority to a foreign body…known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Commission, which will have the power to issue regulations impacting not only trade, but immigration, the environment, labor, and commerce.” Spelling out their opposition further, they added, “Before a word, line, paragraph, or page of this plan is made public, Congress will have agreed to give up its treaty powers… In effect, one of the most sweeping international agreements seen in years will be given less legislative scrutiny and process than a Post Office reform bill.”

On the other side of the aisle two leading liberal Senators, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have been adamantly opposed to granting fast-track authority to speed completion of the TPP.

“Who will benefit from the TPP?” asked Sen. Warren. “American workers, consumers, small businesses, tax payers, or the biggest multinational corporations in the world?”

President Obama disagrees.

“I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class,” Obama has said. “And when you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts they are wrong.”

He singled out Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been outspoken in opposition to the TPP.

“I love Elizabeth,” said the president. “We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this.”

Rep. Israel believes she’s right. “I thought it was a poor choice of words by the president,” he said. “When I agree with the president, I vote with him. When I disagree, I vote against him. On this I plan to vote against him.”

And even though Rep. Lee Zeldin is reportedly still making up his mind about TPP and fast-track, Rep. Israel doubted he could persuade Long Island’s conservative Congressman to share his point of view.

“I don’t think he would listen to me,” said Rep. Israel with a chuckle. “I don’t think he would  accept my political advice under any circumstances.”

But on this bill both Long Island Congressmen could wind up on the same side—opposing the Democrat in the White House.