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Rep. Sandy Levin: Fight Over Pacific Trade Deal Is About Setting Standards


We're going to hear now from one congressional Democrat who personally monitored the TPP talks and advocated changes in the agreement as it was being negotiated. Sander Levin of Michigan is the ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Welcome to the program once again.

SANDER LEVIN: Glad to be here with you.

SIEGEL: First, is it fair to say that on the question of whether to vote for or against this agreement, you remain open-minded?

LEVIN: Yes. This is Congress's time to look into this and to do so very, very carefully and fully. And that's the kind of debate that this important issue needs and deserves.

SIEGEL: Explain this to me. Congress gave the administration the permission to present this trade agreement as an up or down vote to the Congress. But you actually think there could also be bilateral agreements with other countries that are covered by it that might make it a more attractive deal to you.

LEVIN: Yes - for example, Mexico. Mexico now competes with the U.S., for example, in automotive production and parts. Part of this picture is the status of worker rights in Mexico. The wages there are a fifth or less of what they are in the United States.

SIEGEL: Here's what Bernie Sanders said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And I'm quoting now. "Wall Street and other big corporations have won again. It's time for the rest of us to stop letting multinational corporations rig the system to pad their profits at our expense." It's probably not a rare sentiment among Democrats. What do you say to him? How do you respond to that?

LEVIN: You know, I think he's pointing out a major issue. Trade negotiations do affect conditions in this country. Currency is a vivid, vivid example. When currency was rigged by China, we lost - the estimate is several millions of jobs in the United States. So you have to make sure, in trade, that there is a set of standards because what happens is that some countries essentially rig the system, and it hurts us. And I think we should not tolerate that.

SIEGEL: But he's not just pointing it out. He's decrying it. I mean, he's describing the trade agreement and pastorate agreements as, I think, as engines of inequality, which is what a lot of - certainly a lot of liberal Democrats see them as.

LEVIN: I think NAFTA helped lead to the loss of jobs in the automotive sector and in other sectors. And I think it advantaged Mexico in terms of its competitive advantage. And that's why it's so important that we make sure, in trade agreements, that we have a playing field that has some set of standards in it so that the advantage of other countries isn't based, essentially, on suppressing the ability of their workers to have a decent standard of living.

SIEGEL: But Congressman Levin, just to be clear here, if there could be a U.S. negotiation with Mexico about labor standards and if autoworkers in Mexico make one-fifth of what autoworkers in the U.S. make, what would be a reasonable ratio that could emerge from that agreement that would level the playing field a bit in terms of labor costs?

LEVIN: I don't think it will ever be completely level. But on the other hand, if NAFTA had had enforceable worker-rights standards and environmental standards, I think there would have been less attraction of companies to move production in automobiles, including parts, into Mexico. And to simply say let it be, I think is a serious mistake.

That's what this fight over trade is all about - trying to set standards in trade between countries that compete with each other. And so there isn't a single, single factor that matters entirely, but each of these do matter, including the standards for workers and environmental standards.

SIEGEL: Representative Sander Levin, Democrat of Michigan, thanks for talking with us today about the TPP.

LEVIN: Most welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.