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The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal seven years in the making before it was unveiled this month, has quickly moved into the sights of some on Capitol Hill — including a vocal cadre of Wisconsin Democrats.

The partnership is a proposed free-trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.

After being negotiated in secret, the deal was finalized last month. Now it must be approved by the U.S. Congress and lawmakers in other member countries to take effect.

Lawmakers’ views on the trade deal don’t follow party lines. Wisconsin Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Congressman Mark Pocan and Senate candidate Russ Feingold have made their skepticism of the deal a top issue in recent months. Some Republicans, including presidential front-runner Donald Trump, also oppose it.

But Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, along with GOP U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have signaled they might support the deal — though their statements have been more guarded. That could align them with the chief proponent of trade partnership: President Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated it.

Obama and other backers of deal, which include business groups, say it could stave off rising Chinese influence in East Asia. By strengthening trade ties with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, they say the U.S. — not China — can write the economic rules of engagement in that region.

In Wisconsin, there are signs the deal would benefit the state’s agriculture industry.

Still, critics such as Pocan, D-Black Earth, compare the trade partnership to past free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. He and other skeptics of the deal, which include labor, environmental and human rights groups, say such deals have enriched CEOs and corporate shareholders while undercutting U.S. jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector.

That’s especially problematic in a manufacturing-heavy state such as Wisconsin, Pocan said.

“The bottom line is, these deals traditionally cost U.S. jobs or flattened our wages,” Pocan said. “We strongly feel this will do the same.”

Deal has 5,600 pages

Other nations in the proposed partnership with the U.S. are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The 30-chapter deal outlines plans to remove or lower tariffs on a range of products, create a mechanism for resolving international investor disputes and protections for intellectual property such as copyrights and patents.

Labor provisions would require participating countries to allow workers to join unions and collectively bargain, do away with child labor and forced labor, and be free from employment discrimination, according to a Washington Post report.

But Pocan and other critics say it’s not clear if these or other provisions of the deal could be enforced.

Pocan also said the deal does nothing to resolve a key concern of many U.S. businesses in trading with Pacific Rim nations: currency manipulation.

One of the major U.S. companies that has weighed in on the deal, Ford Motor Co., said it didn’t do enough to curb such practices.

Benefits to agriculture?

Wisconsin’s agriculture industry might get a lift from the deal. It likely would aid agricultural producers, food processors and agriculture equipment manufacturers by lowering trade barriers for those exports, according to Ian Coxhead, a UW-Madison professor who specializes in the economics of development and trade.

For Wisconsin’s dairy industry, Karen Gefvert, spokeswoman for Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said analysts still are combing through the deal to assess its implications.

Coxhead said Wisconsin workers have little to fear from the trade partnership — and that it’s a mistake to attribute the erosion of U.S. manufacturing jobs in recent decades to free-trade deals.

Instead, he said the trend is due to industrialization in countries such as China and Mexico, which he said paved the way for free-trade agreements.

“Free-trade deals are really a symptom of what’s happening in those countries, not the cause” of job losses in the U.S., Coxhead said.

No vote set

A congressional vote on the deal hasn’t been set.

In June, Congress narrowly passed a trade promotion, or fast-track, authority measure that enabled the White House to negotiate trade deals and submit them for congressional approval through an up-or-down vote. That means lawmakers cannot amend or filibuster the deal.

Many viewed the fast-track measure as a test vote for the partnership.

Among Wisconsin’s House members, Pocan and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, voted against the measure. The rest of the state’s delegation voted in favor: Kind, D-La Crosse; Ryan, R-Janesville; and Reps. Sean Duffy, R-Wausau; Glenn Grothman, R-Campbellsport; Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood; and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls.

The state’s Senate delegation, Johnson, of Oshkosh, voted for it, and Baldwin, of Madison, against it.

Baldwin has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for keeping the deal under wraps. She said last month that she was eager to review it and see “if it’s another unfair trade deal that stacks the deck against Wisconsin workers.”

Feingold pointed to bipartisan opposition from Trump, who’s leading most Republican presidential polls, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.

“When you see the leading presidential candidates on both sides opposed to this, that tells you something,” Feingold told the State Journal in an interview.

Feingold’s opponent in the 2016 election, Johnson, said in a statement Tuesday that he’s still reviewing the deal and that it’s too early to express an opinion on it.

Speaking at a lunch event last month in Madison, Johnson said Wisconsinites stand to benefit from global trade that is more free.

“These trade deals are trying to open up markets to American products — to our agriculture, to our manufacturing,” Johnson said. “So I’m hoping that we benefit.”


Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.