Butler Eagle: Fast Track: The wrong way to do trade

March 30, 2015


The following is an article by Dave Frengel that was printed in the Butler Eagle.  Dave was the Director of Government Relations for Penn United Technologies, and sits on the Board of Directors of CPA.

The only time during President Barack Obama's January 20th State of the Union Address that most Democrats sat still while most Republicans stood to applaud was when the president asked Congress for "Fast Track" trade promotion authority. 

[Reposted from the Butler Eagle  |  Dave Frengel  |  March 26, 2015]

The Constitution gives the executive branch the authority to negotiate international treaties, which require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate for ratification, but it gives Congress the authority to regulate trade. 

Fast Track is a special rule that circumvents regular congressional order for trade agreements.  For these, it requires an up or down, simple majority vote by both the House and Senate, without amendments, within 90 days. 

First instituted during the Nixon administration, Fast Track legislation is so controversial it always has been set to expire automatically after five years and has included congressional standards for trade agreements.  The fourth and most recent bill expired in 2007. 

Unfortunately, because of Fast Track's hair trigger that puts the rule into effect immediately when the president simply submits an agreement for approval, several trade deals in recent years that didn't meet congressional standards were approved, forcing lots of Americans out of business and out of good jobs.  

The President needs Fast Track in order to gain approval for the two biggest-ever U.S. trade pacts his Administration is negotiating: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Together they encompass nearly 80% of the global economy.  Getting them wrong will change America in significant and undesirable ways from which we may never recover. 

Under Fast Track, the executive branch rather than Congress has been selecting our trading partners and also deciding what goes into trade agreements.  And Obama's trade officials are allowing members of Congress only very limited access to TPP and TTIP documents, while entirely barring the public and congressional staffers from access to them.

Obama's TPP and TTIP negotiators are ignoring the most important trade standards regularly set by Congress.  For example, perhaps the top congressional trade priority has been to stop governments from gaining an unfair trade advantage by rigging currency values.  Nevertheless, though five of the TPP nations are among the ten worse abusers of this long-outlawed practice, Obama's trade ambassador, Michael Froman, has declared that the currency issue will not be addressed in TPP.

There is little chance Congress would approve these world-changing international treaties under the regular rules of order.  That's why the President wants Fast Track with its hair trigger rule, and why it's so surprising that the Republican leadership in Congress is preparing a new Fast Track bill for release very soon - condoning Obama's usurping and overruling their Constitutional authority. 

If  Fast Track is renewed, Congress will likely pass TPP and TTIP even if both deals fall far short of congressional standards because the 90-day, no amendment rule will go into effect immediately when the president submits them for approval. 

Worse than Obamacare, because of the hair trigger there will be no time before the vote for Congress and the public to study the details of TPP and TTIP.  There will be only a kindergarten debate: "Are you a free trader or a protectionist?"  To avoid the protectionist label, even members of Congress with serious concerns about these disastrous trade treaties will just rubber-stamp them.  

Thankfully a growing number of Republicans and Democrats believe that a better way to liberalize trade in the broad national interest is to restore the balance of power. 

New trade legislation must set firm minimum requirements for trade agreements and provide no fast-tracking for those that fall short.  It also must reestablish congressional selection of trading partners and representation in trade negotiations.  And it must require regular public disclosure of trade negotiation draft documents. 

Better trade authority legislation would require the worse parts of TPP and TTIP to be renegotiated, and that is a good thing.  No matter how competitive and pro-free trade Americans are, we cannot afford two new big, bad trade deals. 

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