The congressional vote on fast track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has entered into a period of what appear to be rather convoluted twists and turns. Whether that path eventually leads to its approval – giving the President authority to negotiate trade deals in secret and then bring them to Congress for a yes or no vote, no amendments allowed – or to its defeat is simply impossible to predict at this point. The way this debate is playing out highlights several basic concerns, starting with transparency but extending to the content of the trade deals as well.
Fast track is an extraordinary surrender of congressional authority to the President. It was first created during the Nixon administration, and has been granted for a total of only five years in the last two decades. It last expired in 2007. If approved, the current bill would cover the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and any other trade deal that could emerge in the next six years. Much of the focus in the media has been on TPP, since that agreement is closer to completion, but the proposed TPA is much broader than that, and extends into the completely unknown terrain of the next presidential administration.
A big part of the debate – and it really has come down to a very public argument between President Obama and key progressive leaders such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Sander Levin and Representative Rosa DeLauro – has been over the lack of transparency in the trade negotiations. Members of Congress can see only hard copies of negotiating texts, and only in a special reading room; they are not allowed to take notes or to discuss their findings publicly. In an article in Politico, Rep. DeLauro complains that, “You can’t have a staff person [there while viewing the text] unless that staff person has a clearance, even when the document is classified as confidential…Now you can ask questions, but ask anyone if they’ve gotten answers back to any of the questions and the answer is no. Nothing gets changed.” The U.S. is far behind the EU when it comes to transparency in the trade talks and has so far refused to publish any of its negotiating proposals. Though European civil society finds the European Commission’s level of transparency in trade talks highly deficient, the U.S. has set a much lower bar when it comes to openness.
The level of public debate on fast track among civil society groups is unprecedented. Last year, when the first fast track bill was introduced, more than 600 organizations wrote to Congress outlining the reasons for their rejection of fast track and their proposals for a different process that would give Congress a greater role in setting negotiating objectives and ensuring that they are being met before the negotiations are completed. When the current version of fast track was introduced with the same problems as the earlier failed bill, that number swelled to more than 2,000 organizations. Unions have made opposition to fast track a defining issue, announcing that they would suspend political contributions until it is resolved and strongly implying that they would make this a key issue in their support moving forward.
While transparency in the negotiating process has claimed center stage for the moment, the content of the proposed trade deals is central to the controversy. This is especially true in the ongoing debate over Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) between Senator Warren and the White House. ISDS gives corporations the right to sue governments over measures that affect their expected profits. But it is also about the history of NAFTA, CAFTA and other free trade agreements and the clear understanding that free-trade agreements have contributed to job losses and income inequality.
The latest twist in the fast track saga is its connection to Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which provides some funding for workers displaced by free trade. After several prominent Democrats indicated that they would not support fast track without it, a new TAA bill was introduced that excludes public sector workers from coverage and pays for the new TAA funding by making cuts in Medicare, the program that provides health care assistance to senior citizens. This outrageous proposal puts supporters of TAA in a tight spot.
Early White House press releases on fast track boasted about a new negotiating objective on human rights. None of the negotiating objectives in fast track is enforceable, but this one is especially vague, asserting that improvements in the rule of law should lead to progress on human rights. Senator Robert Menendez took this argument a step further, introducing an amendment that would ban the U.S. from entering into trade negotiations with governments that fail to take effective action against human trafficking. Apart from the very dubious link between US foreign policy and human rights, in practical terms this would effectively exclude Malaysia from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
The Senate passed its version of fast track on May 22. This was unsurprising since the Senate has historically supported free trade. In fact, it was introduced first in the Senate on the assumption that it would sail through and create political momentum for passage in the House of Representatives. So the fact that it passed only after considerable opposition and the introduction of nearly 100 amendments means that the strategy of paving the way for the House vote failed. When and if the House of Representatives votes on fast track, it will consider its own version, with any differences eventually ironed out in a conference committee between the two bodies. But that is a big if. In the meantime, civil society platforms such as the Citizens Trade Campaign continue to mobilize U.S. citizens to pressure their representatives to block fast track. As of this writing, it is not at all certain whether fast track will come to a vote next week, next month, or perhaps just fade away until a better alternative emerges, one that starts with transparency, values sovereignty over corporate profits and contributes to fair and sustainable trade.