As I write this the very end of January, the Washington rumor mill says a “Fast Track” bill may be introduced next week, or by the end of February for sure. The rumor mill may be wrong—and Fast Track is encountering more resistance from both Democrats and some Republicans than many expected—but we have to expect the worst.
Not quite sure what Fast Track is? (Hint: it’s not good and we absolutely have to stop it.) Fast Track (FT) is a procedural measure that Congress has adopted a couple of times before to make it easier to pass so-called “free trade” treaties.
First, FT classifies international trade bills as “Agreements”, not “treaties”—so they need only a majority of votes in the Senate, not the 2/3 required for other “treaties”.
Second, FT transfers the Constitutional powers of Congress “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations” to the Executive Branch, the President. This means that the President can unilaterally decide who to negotiate a trade Agreement with, complete the negotiations and actually sign the trade Agreement.
Third, Congress has practically no voice in determining the content of a trade Agreement negotiated under Fast Track: once the President sends the Agreement to Congress, it has a total of 90 days before it has to take a vote. It can hold hearings on the Agreement, but no amendments are permitted either in Committee or on the floor. Perhaps most astonishing of all, no more than 20 hours of debate are permitted in either house. Then it’s an up or down vote.
What makes this procedure even more dangerous is that trade Agreements, when they go to Congress, also include any changes in federal law necessary to bring it into conformity with the Agreement. Since the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is currently being negotiated, is more about standards and regulations than about tariffs or quotas (which used to be the subject of trade agreements), major changes in federal law and policy can be altered by the one vote Congress takes on the TPP.
For example, even though negotiating texts of the TPP are classified, we know that the TPP could put restrictions on the internet, lengthen the duration of patents on drugs so the production of cheaper generics would be delayed, weaken some of the regulations on big banks that were adopted after they crashed the economy in 2007, and even give foreign corporations the right to sue our government if new laws or regulations on the environment, worker safety, toxic emissions, or food safety were judged by a panel of lawyers from the World Bank to “reduce their expected profits”. Most incredible of all, these suits would by-pass our own legal system entirely, and the World Bank lawyers could levy unlimited fines on our government (or any government subject to the TPP) with no appeal.
And of course we can expect to lose hundreds of thousands more jobs to outsourcing, as companies in the US move production to lower wage countries like Vietnam (where the average hourly wage is 60 cents).
So the TPP is the worst trade deal you’ve never heard of (because it’s been negotiated in secrecy). It’s also the biggest, including 40% of world production and almost 800 million people.
And if Fast Track is passed the TPP will almost certainly pass too, since the combined lobbying power and influence of the Administration as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and just about every multi-national corporation and “too big to fail” bank will be directed at those who supposedly represent us in the House and the Senate, twisting arms and promising favors to vote “yes”.
All Wisconsin Republicans are expected to vote in favor of Fast Track. All Democrats (except Congressman Kind) are expected to oppose it. But ALL those who represent us in Congress need to know how strongly we feel about this issue. So at least pick up the phone and call a couple of them (the Capitol Switchboard will connect you: 202-224-3121). A letter to the Editor of your local paper would help too. And remember how they voted come election time…
President, Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition
President Emeritus, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO