(OpenSecrets) – The proposal to fast track trade agreements made by the Obama administration and overseas partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — said to be the biggest trade agreement in history, surpassing NAFTA — has created a dynamic that’s contrary to the way things usually go in Washington these days: Republicans are pushing for the authorization alongside the president, while some in the administration’s own party are pushing back.
And some of the biggest potential beneficiaries of a trade deal (like pharmaceutical companies and other business interests) have made significant investments in the GOP. Opposing groups that lean Democratic, including labor groups like the AFL-CIO and environmental advocacy organizations, are leveraging their political giving, too. In fact, the AFL-CIO announced in March that it was suspending contributions from its PAC to federal candidates until the issue is resolved.
The point of fast tracking legislation is to show good faith in negotiations with other countries. The president can work out a deal with foreign partners more easily if the partners trust that the agreement won’t be picked apart piece-by-piece when it goes before Congress for approval. With fast track, Congress gets a straight up-or-down vote — lawmakers can only approve the deal as a whole or reject it altogether.
“The legislation that I introduced last year… actually enhances Congress’s role in trade negotiations by giving specific direction to the administration as to what they need to deliver to get an agreement through Congress,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in January, referring to a previous iteration of the legislation.
Those opposed say the all-or-nothing approach is risky. Negotiations are being kept too secret, they maintain, noting that the few leaked provisions favor corporations and the wealthy and will damage Obama’s environmental record. For instance, documents released by Wikileaks and reported in the New York Times revealed a provision that would set up an independent arbitration panel to allow multinational corporations to call into question the laws of sovereign nations. Conflicts between countries and corporations would be brought before the panel — composed of industry lawyers –rather than resolved by the courts of the countries involved. Others have raised concerns with provisions discovered in other leaks that indicate the deal would provide increased patent protection for pharmaceutical companies, delaying cheaper generic drugs from entering U.S. markets.
Fast track legislation was proposed in the last Congress but failed to pass after much lobbying by a long list of interests, including trade associations, business interests, and labor unions.
The mighty U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has the biggest lobbying budget of any organization year after year, strongly supports the fast track bill. Spending $124 million to weigh in on hundreds of bills last year, it referenced the legislation in its lobbying reports more than any other group.
Many organizations tied for second in terms of references to the bill, including advocates on both sides of the fast track debate like the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. But those lobbying against it have a much more modest lobbying footprint. The Sierra Club, for instance, claimed $360,000 in lobbying expenses in 2014, and the AFL-CIO spent $5.2 million.
The Chamber has a long history of favoring Republicans in Congress, a preference that has only grown more stark. Of the $264,875 it gave to candidates in 2014, just a single contribution of $1,250 went to a Democrat — all the rest went to the GOP. Itsoutside spending arm pumped $33.4 million of the $35.5 million it spent overall into helping Republican candidates.
The pharmaceutical industry, which gave $10.9 million to candidates in the most recent cycle, split its giving somewhat more equitably, with $4.7 million going to Dems and $6.2 to Republicans. Nearly $6.7 million of its overall donations went to members of the Senate Finance Committee, which must clear the legislation before it goes to a full vote.
The AFL-CIO‘s political spending leans strongly Democratic, though the divide isn’t quite as stark as it is with the Chamber. The labor umbrella group gave $436,000 to Democratic candidates last cycle and $135,000 to Republicans. All but $480 of its $1.1 million in outside spending, though, went to help Dems. Environmental interests gave nearly $6 million to candidates in 2014, $5.3 million of which went to Democrats.