Sixteen years ago today, 171 Democrats and 71 GOP Representatives united to vote down then-President Bill Clinton's request for Fast Track authority. As President Barack Obama now seeks to revive the extreme Nixon-era trade procedure, the 1998 Fast Track smackdown is worth remembering.
Clinton, known for "trade expansion" did not have the extreme authority, which delegates Congress' exclusive constitutional authority over trade to the executive branch, for six of his eight years in office. Yet, as his U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has noted, that did not stop them from completing many an actual trade deal. From 1995 to 2002, U.S. trade expanded significantly - more than 30 percent.
What Fast Track's demise did stop was rewriting wide swaths of U.S. non-trade law from environmental and food safety rules to medicine patents and Buy Local laws via "trade" negotiations. The sort of retrograde "diplomatic legislating" that occurs behind closed doors in the guise of trade negotiations only works if there is a procedure to steamroll the outcomes over Congress.
Congress started to understand what was in these "trade" agreements after Fast Track was used to ram the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization through Congress. Since then, Congress has only authorized Fast Track for five of the past 20 years.
Last year 185 Democratic and GOP Representatives and a bloc of Senators signed letters opposing a revival of Fast Track. They noted that it was simply inappropriate to the reality that today's "trade" agreements set binding terms with respect to an enormous variety of domestic non-trade policies under Congress' direct authority.
As a candidate, Obama said he would replace Fast Track. But now he is seeking a revival of Nixon's power grab procedure to try to railroad the increasingly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - aka NAFTA on steroids with Asia - through Congress.
Most of those now in Congress were not in office in 1998 when a Congress deadlocked by partisan rancor and shaped by a restive bloc of conservative new GOP members denied second-term Democratic president Clinton trade authority. But the situation today is remarkably similar.
Many Democrats, including many who are avid "free traders," oppose the TPP because it is a Trojan horse device packed with binding terms that would increase job offshoring and undermine core domestic goals relating to lower drug prices, food safety, climate policy, Internet freedom, and more. (In 1998, the pact in question was a 34-nation NAFTA expansion called the Free Trade Area of the Americas.)
A large bloc of the GOP cannot stomach voluntarily giving more authority to a president that they attack as seizing authority from Congress. Or they take issue with elements of TPP - for instance, the extrajudicial foreign tribunals that could demand payment to foreign corporations from the U.S. Treasury for U.S. laws that domestic firms comply with every day.
And, Democrats and GOP alike are angry about how Congress as an institution has been treated by the White House and U.S. trade officials in relation to high stakes negotiations. Not only is the executive branch restricting congressional access to trade agreement negotiating texts relative to past practice, but after bipartisan mega-blocs of 230 House members and 60 Senators wrote to Obama in 2012 insisting that the TPP include enforceable disciplines against currency cheating, U.S. negotiators have refused to do so even as President Obama announced repeated (missed) deadlines for TPP's conclusion.
So, as we recall the sweet-sixteen anniversary of Fast Track's 1998 House-floor trouncing, let's toast to Congress doing the right thing again. Fast Track needs to be boxed and buried for good. As more than 600 civil society groups wrote earlier this month, we need a new a new way to negotiate, consider and implement trade pacts. Such a new process must ensure that we do not repeat the dire mistakes of our past agreements, and that the public and Congress have a fulsome role from start to finish.