A Look at the Fast-Track Bill Shows It's the Wrong Thing to Do

04/20/2015 10:45 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
Gabriella Demczuk via Getty Images

The "fast-track" trade-promotion-authority bill has been introduced in the Senate. Though Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution says, "The Congress shall have power to ... regulate commerce with foreign nations," under fast track Congress relinquishes that power and agrees to pass trade bills brought to them by the executive branch in a very short time frame with little debate and without making any changes should any problems present themselves.

Though it was announced that this year's fast-track bill was the result of a "deal" between Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the 2015 bill is nearly identical to the 2014 bill that died in Congress without support for a vote. See this side-by-side comparison from Rep. Sander Levin (D-Michigan) of the House Ways and Means Committee. It is unclear from this comparison why the "negotiations" between Hatch and Wyden took so long, or what Wyden got that enabled him to put his name on it, enabling the bill to be sold as "bipartisan."

Fast Track Sets Aside Normal Procedure

Congress does not set aside normal procedure, debate, and the ability to fix problems that turn up and agree to vote within 90 days except for trade agreements -- even though trade agreements have now proven to have such a tremendous and often detrimental effect on our economy, jobs, wages and inequality. Where did the idea to do this come from? According to Public Citizen, this unusual procedure was "initially created by President Richard Nixon to get around public debate and congressional oversight."

Even for trade agreements, this use of the fast-track process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be unusual. Usually fast track is set up by Congress before a trade agreement is negotiated. This way Congress can at least say who to negotiate with and lay out a set of objectives they are directing the administration to achieve.

But the TPP agreement that this fast-track process will apply to is already nearly completed! So for the TPP only, fast track's special procedures to bypass the usual process -- short time period, limited debate, no amendments -- are only for pushing the agreement through, without the pre-designation of trade partners, objectives, and other matters that some say justifies doing so.

In essence, this fast-track bill, if it passes, pre-approves the TPP before anyone even knows what is in it and without Congress saying in advance what should be in it.

A Quick Way to Decide If You Are for Fast Track

If you don't want to get mired in the wording and details of the fast-track bill, here is a shortcut to deciding if you are for it or against it:

  • Most Republicans in Congress are for it. In particular, the "establishment" Republicans generally seen as in the pocket of Wall Street, giant multinational corporations and lobbyists are for it. (Note that many "Constitution-based" tea-party Republicans are opposed to it.)
  • Most Democrats in Congress are against it.
  • Wall Street and the giant multinational corporations are for it big-time.
  • Every single U.S. labor union is against it.
  • The Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and other corporate organizations are for it.
  • Pretty much every identifiable progressive-aligned organization is against it, including human-rights groups, environmental groups, faith groups, legal scholars, consumer groups, food-safety groups, LGBT groups and many, many others.
  • Big corporate groups argue that fast track brings us trade deals that are good for American jobs. We've heard this before and have learned that these giant, multinational companies care about their profits at the expense of American jobs because they can pocket the wage difference. Many of these giant multinational companies no longer even pay taxes back to our country.
  • Polls show that the public is overwhelmingly against it. (Even conservatives are opposed.)
  • House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Sen. Orrin Hatch are for it.
  • Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio); Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), Alan Grayson (D-Florida), Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and many, many other noted progressives are against it.
  • Dave Johnson is against it -- and CAF is against it.

If you do want the details, here is a detailed analysis of the bill from Public Citizen.

The Exit Ramp

This bill is publicly sold as providing Congress with an "exit ramp" that lets them revoke fast track if the trade bill that shows up does not meet the objectives Congress laid out in the fast-track bill. However, for this to happen, regardless of whether a majority of House and Senate members wants to revoke fast track, this must be approved by both the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee and the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee and then be passed by both chambers within 60 days. Only then could Congress go back to the normal process and vote to make changes that they feel are needed.

Here is the tip-off to understanding this "exit ramp." This fast-track bill calls on the administration to negotiate rules against currency manipulation in trade agreements like the TPP, and a majority of the House and the Senate previously said they want this. (Note: The bill does not require "enforceable" rules.) But leaks (and the administration) tell us there are no currency rules in the TPP and won't be. For those who wonder how this can be, the previous fast track for NAFTA, WTO and other trade pacts also called for currency rules that never appeared, but fast track was never revoked. In other words, this exit ramp leads right back onto the freeway.

The TPP and the Harm Past Trade Agreements Have Done to Our Country

We don't yet know what is in the TPP, because it is still secret and will remain so until shortly before the fast-track process requires Congress to vote. The president says to trust him, telling us that it will be great and "progressive" and create lots of jobs and expand the economy. Great. But the history on our trade deals -- especially those passed using fast track -- has been very bad. NAFTA was sold as creating a lot of jobs and growing the economy, but NAFTA destroyed jobs and expanded the trade deficit. China's entry into the World Trade Organization was sold as creating a lot of jobs and growing the economy, but it turned out to be absolutely devastating for America's working people, middle class and entire manufacturing ecosystem, and the trade deficit with China is now enormous. As a result of these agreements, entire regions of the country look like wastelands. Seriously, go look at Detroit.

Everyone has experienced or knows someone who was laid off when their job was sent out of the country or has been threatened with that if they get uppity and don't take pay and benefit cuts. Most working people now live in fear of that happening to them.

Even with all of that damage done to this country and to the morale of American working people, those trade agreements were never revoked. This is because the wages that used to go to American working people went into a few pockets, and the people who got the benefit of those trade deals now control the levers of power of our government.

And everyone understands this.

So there are a lot of reasons to fear that another trade agreement, negotiated in secret by corporate representatives with other stakeholders like labor and environmentalists kept away, will yield the same results. Even the president says, "I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype."

It Is Wrong to Rush This, and It Is Wrong to Prohibit Congress From Fixing Flaws That Would Hurt Us

The TPP is the largest trade agreement ever. It includes countries that make up 40 percent of the world's economy. President Obama himself is selling the TPP as rewriting the rules for doing business in the 21st century. This is a big deal, and the American system needs to be able to operate as intended to consider if we should do it.

It is wrong, under these circumstances, for the president to ask Americans to just trust him and grant him a process that bypasses the Constitution and requires Congress to vote on the TPP before the public has a chance to read it, analyze it, discuss it, thoroughly understand it and consider all of the ramifications -- and then organize opposition if the public decides opposition is warranted. That takes time.

And it is wrong under these circumstances for the president to demand a process that does not let Congress fix flaws that turn up in that process that might harm our economy and our people.

Trade can be done right. Trade can lift people on all sides of trade borders. Trade can improve lives. But so far we have been doing it wrong, and it has badly hurt us. Congress and the public need as much time as it takes to evaluate the TPP and must be allowed to fix problems that might turn up in that time.

This post originally appeared on the website of Campaign for America's Future (CAF) on their Blog for OurFuture. Dave Johnson is a fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary, and/or here for the Progress Breakfast. Click here to follow Dave on Twitter, and here to follow CAF on Twitter.