news feature
June 29, 2007

 

 

 

Fast Track authority set to die a quiet
(but, for some, celebrated) death
by Tom Bogdon

In his State of the Economy address in January, President George W. Bush noted that his Fast Track trade promotion authorization from Congress will expire this year and maintained that his administration’s ability to negotiate new trade agreements would be hamstrung without it.

“The authority is set to expire on July 1 — and I ask Congress to renew it,” Bush said. “I know there’s going to be a vigorous debate on trade, and bashing trade can make for good sound bites on the evening news. But walling off America from world trade would be a disaster for our economy….”

The Constitution reserves to Congress the power to enter into trade agreements. Under Fast Track, Congress delegates to the Executive Branch the authority to negotiate these agreements, and only after a trade deal is finalized can Congress approve or disapprove it. Congress can only vote an agreement up or down, and cannot amend it, and debate is limited.

As Bush noted, “Presidents of both parties have considered this authority essential to completing good trade agreements. Our trading partners consider it essential to our success at the negotiating table…”

As Fast Track is set to expire July 1, the legislative fireworks Bush expected won’t happen. Fast Track apparently will go out not with a bang but with a whimper. There won’t be “vigorous debate,” and few if any “sound bites on the evening news.” Instead, the atmosphere is one of a quiet consensus in Congress that U.S. trade policy needs to be overhauled.

As U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, pointed out (through his press secretary), “Labor and environmental issues will have to be tackled in any Fast Track bill to obtain broad bipartisan support. Addressing these issues within Fast Track authority is vital for a level playing field for trade. No country should be allowed to gain trade advantages by ducking these standards, just as they cannot ignore intellectual property rights or international food safety rules.”

U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas Democrat, spoke strongly as to the necessity for Congress to actively participate in the making of trade agreements:

“Congress has an important constitutional role to play in negotiating and approving international trade agreements,” she said. “We shouldn’t dodge our responsibility by assigning fast-track negotiating powers to the president. Congress needs to actively pursue trade policies that are fair, supportive of workers’ rights, and beneficial to the American economy.”

U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, noted that Congress has granted Fast Track authority to the administrations of U.S. presidents almost continuously since 1974, adding, “In the past, I have supported legislation to extend Trade Promotion Authority (Fast Track), and I will closely examine similar legislation in the 110th Congress.”

Calls by eKC online to Maria Speiser, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, were not returned. Finally, Adrianne Marsh, the senator’s director of communications, told this reporter that McCaskill “probably would not have time” to comment for this article.

However, that apparent indifference on the part of McCaskill’s staff does not mean that trade is not viewed as an issue of importance in the Senate as well as the House. On June 28, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, advocated “a new direction for trade” in a Capitol Hill news conference.

Brown, joined by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) Bob Casey (D-PA) and Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Betty Sutton (D-OH) and Phil Hare (D-IL), along with more than two dozen labor, business, environmental, human rights and faith groups, announced a common agenda as Congress “reclaims its constitutional authority in the trade debate for the first time in nearly five years.”

Said Brown: “Voters in November spoke out against the job-killing trade pacts and fundamentally flawed trade policy of the last decade. We have a choice to lower our standards or demand that our trading partners raise theirs. Today, we set our nation on a new course for trade that works for U.S. businesses and workers, not just multinational CEOs.”

Brown outlined the coalition’s trade priorities, including strengthening the U.S. Treasury’s authority to address currency manipulation by nations such as China, revamping U.S. trade pacts, strengthening product safety, instituting benchmarks as a mechanism for accountability in future trade agreements, enforcing trade pact standards and holding violators accountable, advocating anti-sweatshop legislation and instituting a national security review of trade deals.

In 2006, the U.S. trade deficit reached a record $836 billion, the fifth consecutive annual record. Meanwhile, in the past six years, the U.S. lost 3 million manufacturing jobs including 180,000 in Ohio, emphasizing the need for a sound trade policy, Brown said. This year Congress is expected to consider four proposed free trade agreements already negotiated under Fast Track authority. These deals are with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

“We can sit by idly as countries like China use unfair subsidies, manipulate their currency, suppress human rights and export unsafe products, or we can choose to confront these economic and health dangers and get proactive on trade,” Brown said. “All of us want trade to produce positive results, not faulty products, massive job loss and unprecedented trade deficits.”

Other news conference participants included the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, United Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, U.S. Business and Industry Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Citizens Trade Campaign, National Farmers Union, National Family Farm Coalition, American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, Interfaith Working Group, United Methodist Church, NETWORK, China Currency Coalition, Americans for Democratic Action, and Jubilee USA.

In Kansas City, news of the impending expiration of Fast Track and possible trade policy reform was greeted with enthusiasm.

“I’m delighted that we have some politicians in Washington DC who show that they give a damn about working men and women in this country,” said John Wiseman, international staff representative for the United Steelworkers of America. “We’ve been devastated nationwide, and here in the Kansas City area we’ve lost thousands upon thousands of good paying jobs because of these trade agreements…”

Craig Volland, chair of the International Trade and Environment Committee for the Kansas Sierra Club, said: “The WTO (World Trade Organization) and agreements like NAFTA generally favor the sanctity of the commercial transaction over the environment. We are happy that Fast Track trade authority has expired because anything the current administration would negotiate would continue that policy.”

Concerning the ballooning U.S. Trade deficit, L. Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, told eKC online that this massive (and growing) deficit pushes American workers disproportionately out of manufacturing jobs into lower-paying work in other sectors.

“In just the five years from 2000 to 2005, more than 3 million manufacturing jobs disappeared,” Bivens said. “We estimate that at least one-third of that decline was caused by the rise in the manufactured goods trade deficit.

“This deficit is financed by borrowing from foreign investors year after year,” Bivens continued. “In time, the burden of this accumulated debt will threaten continued economic growth.

“The trade deficit WILL be closed one day in the future. The choice is between a managed, orderly closing of this deficit, orchestrated by U.S. and foreign policymakers, and a chaotic, sudden and damaging crisis orchestrated by international financial markets. It’s time policymakers stopped ignoring the problem.”

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


              
              
                 

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