WASHINGTON — Fast-track authority is a good idea in auto racing, but not in international trade policy.
That’s because fast track — also known as “trade promotion authority” — speeds trade pacts through Congress, denying the people’s representatives the chance to improve them.
Our democracy is damaged along with our economy. Since fast track’s original enactment in 1974, the U.S. has put dozens of trade agreement in place without this special anti-democratic process.
Our Constitution gives Congress exclusive power to “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” But fast track significantly interferes with that power by prohibiting the House and Senate from amending trade treaties or related legislation presented by the administration, instead allowing only up-or-down votes after limited debate.
It’s no coincidence that this assault on the principles of republican government is being raised again just when the administration wants to rush through Congress several big, flawed trade treaties. Advocates of unfair trade know they could never get the secretly negotiated pacts approved as currently written unless they rigged the rules first.
The most disturbing of them is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would economically unite a dozen countries in vastly different states of development and with radically different standards for worker rights, consumer safety and environmental protection.
As has been true of all our nation’s recent unfair trade pacts, rather than raise the standards to serve the public interest, the TPP would lower them to serve the interests of multinational corporations.
It’s important to understand that modern, comprehensive trade treaties like the TPP are about more than tariff levels. They threaten the very ideas of national sovereignty, community self-determination and personal freedom in order to smooth the way to greater profits for transnational corporations often by trumping laws passed by states and local communities.
Worker rights that might lead to higher wages, consumer safeguards that might add to the cost of production, environmental regulations that might crimp expansion plans — all of them can be swept away under the provisions of unfair trade pacts like the TPP.
Because such treaties are so far ranging in their impact, there’s a need for more Congressional oversight, not less. That’s particularly true because, beyond the social disruptions caused and despite the rosy predictions of unfair trade proponents, pacts like the TPP have not turned out to be good for the American economy.
As just one example: after signing a free-trade pact with South Korea a few years ago, our trade deficit with that country increased by 30 percent — not only did the Koreans export more to us, but we exported less to them. Falling exports translates into fewer good jobs for Americans.
Even proponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the 20-year-old pact between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. that was the prototype for megadeals like the TPP — have been hard-pressed to identify any net economic benefits for us. Meanwhile, the lost jobs, closed factories, and fractured communities that resulted from the shifting of production to low-cost Mexico are tragically easy to measure.
Opponents of free trade agreements are not opposed to international trade — we just want it to be fair. We want it to be good for American workers and consumers, not just big corporations. Included in the core of any such pacts (side agreements have never worked) should be respect for worker rights, consumer safety and environmental quality. Members of Congress from both parties have important improvements along these lines to make to the TPP, if given the chance.
But under fast track, they won’t have that chance. Congress should stand up for its rights as a co-equal branch of government, and protect our rights as citizens of a democratic republic, by rejecting fast track authority and beginning the process of transforming free trade into fair trade.
Don Kusler is executive director of Americans for Democratic Action.