Derailing Fast Track
Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2002
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, May 15, 2002
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 19, 2002
Columbus Dispatch, May 19, 2002
Birmingham News, May 20, 2002
Daily Press (Newport News, VA), May 23, 2002
Lima News (Lima, OH), June 9, 2002
Fast Track is back—but not so fast, says the US Senate. Re-named by its advocates as "Trade Promotion Authority," this measure would strip the Congress of its power to amend commercial agreements with other countries. Our elected representatives would have only an up or down vote on the final product brought to them by the Bush Administration.
But the speed bumps are getting bigger in the Senate, which has already fought back with an amendment preserving the right of Congress to separately consider certain changes in US trade law.
Why the fight? Nine years ago our corporate and political leaders sold the American public a bill of goods under the misleading title of "free trade," as in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The same false advertising was used to market the World Trade Organization (WTO) a couple of years later. Now the truth about these agreements is coming back to haunt them.
Fast Track is a power grab by the executive branch to deprive Congress of its constitutional authority to regulate foreign commerce. The administration wants this power because the commercial agreements it seeks are not primarily about "free trade," and in fact have a number of harmful objectives.
Take NAFTA's now infamous Chapter 11. This set of rules gave corporations the right to sue governments directly for actions that reduce their profits. Californians awoke to discover that their environmental laws were now subject to a new form of legal challenge. When they banned the gasoline additive MTBE, which had already contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in the state, California faced a lawsuit from a Canadian corporation under NAFTA's Chapter 11.
This case and others have aroused opposition from not only the nation's largest environmental groups, but also broad-based, non-partisan organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities.
"We do not believe that it is necessary to create different legal standards for foreign investors to attract their investments in our communities," they wrote in a letter supporting Senator John Kerry's amendment to the Fast Track legislation. The Kerry amendment would direct trade negotiators to protect the Constitutional authority of our local, state, and national governments—and not to erode this authority with new rights for corporations.
The use of "free trade" agreements and organizations such as the WTO to increase patent protection for pharmaceutical companies is also being exposed. This is the most costly and—in the case of essential medicines for such diseases as AIDS—deadly form of protectionism in the world. Yet it remains one of the top priorities for US trade negotiators.
Then there is the economic question of who wins and loses from these agreements. The weight of the evidence from economic research across the political spectrum is clear: for at least 70 percent of the US labor force, the liberalization of trade and investment over the last 20 years has lowered wages. This is the logical and predictable outcome of throwing American workers into increasingly harsh competition with people who earn as little as 25 cents an hour, and often do not even have the right to organize unions.
Americans are fine with trade. But we are deeply suspicious of agreements that subordinate our Constitution, our environmental protection, and our health and safety standards to international agreements that are fast-tracked into law by multinational corporate lawyers and lobbyists. And if increased trade and international investment are being used to lower living standards for the majority of Americans, why should we support more of the same?
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).