WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives will quickly get down to unfinished business once it returns from the holiday recess: defending trading partners that engage in slavery.
The House, according to sources familiar with trade deal negotiations, plans to strip Senate language from fast-track legislation that would ban countries that are the worst human-trafficking and forced-labor offenders from being part of big trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The provision will be removed by House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) through a customs bill that will come to the floor after the fast-track bill, sources familiar with the planning told The Huffington Post.
On the eve of the holiday recess last week, the Senate passed legislation giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority to shepherd trade deals through Congress. The anti-slavery provision was, for the White House and other backers of the deal, an unwelcome rider. While the provision seems like a no-brainer (who supports slavery in 2015?), the White House wants it gone.
If the provision stays, one of the 12 countries in the deal, Malaysia, would be forced out due to its pattern of countenancing what amounts to slavery -- a human rights violation so extreme it calls into question how far civilization has advanced over the past several centuries. Malaysia is designated as a tier 3 nation by the State Department, the worst ranking for a country that fails to take action against human trafficking. For American labor, slavery represents unfair wage competition, as it's impossible for companies to compete with no-cost, forced labor. But for the White House, Malaysia is integral to the deal, not just because of the size of its economy, but because of its control over the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping corridor.
Now it’s up to the House -- specifically Ryan -- to fix it. Ryan's plan is to marshal the votes for the fast-track bill first. (Fast track would allow Obama and a future president over the next six years to strike trade deals and push them through Congress without filibusters or amendments.) Ryan then plans to pass trade adjustment assistance -- what labor refers to as "funeral insurance" -- money that would go to some workers whose jobs are lost as a result of the trade deal.
Finally, Ryan will push for a vote on a customs enforcement bill, which seeks to crack down on countries that violate U.S. trade laws.
“While it's too early to say what the final product will look like, the customs and enforcement bill has always been the vehicle with which we’ve planned to reconcile differences between the two chambers on a range of issues," said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck, when asked about plans to strip the strong slavery language using the customs bill.
"The weaker Menendez language would give a tier 3 trafficking country an out if the secretary of state sends Finance and Ways and Means [committees] a public letter spelling out the concrete actions a tier 3 country is taking to comply with the recommendations outlined by state in the trafficking report," said one congressional source close to the negotiations.
Those "concrete actions" wouldn't have to lead to any actual or tangible progress.
The State Department describes Malaysia in its annual human trafficking report as “a destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking." The department recommends Malaysia punish “public officials who may profit from trafficking or who exploit victims.”
The State Department also noted that “poor” government treatment of human trafficking victims in Malaysia remains a “significant impediment to successful prosecutions,” citing reported cases of alleged forced labor and sex trafficking that “authorities failed to investigate.”
Critics argue that Malaysia could comply with the U.S. trade measure by providing a rough plan of how it will crack down on human trafficking, without actually having to follow through on it.
Dean Baker, a liberal economist critical of the trade deal, said the debate over slavery brings into relief just how badly the administration wants TPP. "The slavery story just speaks volumes about what is important and what isn't," he said. "We are prepared to go to the mat for stronger patent and copyright protections, but we don't want prohibitions on slavery to impede the advancement of a trade deal."
The House is full steam ahead, and Republican proponents of trade say they hope bringing the customs bill to the floor for a vote will woo more Democrats to support fast track. As of last week, Republicans admitted the votes weren’t there to give Obama expedited authority on trade.
Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, plans to work across the party aisle, and with the Senate, to pass a strong customs bill. If all goes as planned, the modified Malaysia language will be included.
“We anticipate sending a bill to the president’s desk promptly,” Tiberi said in an email.
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