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TRADE-US: Opposition Hardens to “Fast Track” Power

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Jun 28 2007 (IPS) - A group of U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups are heralding a new era of U.S. trade policies with the expiration on Saturday of a controversial law that gives extraordinary powers to the U.S. president, even as the George W. Bush administration sought an extension of the authority on Thursday.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab wrote a letter to Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, who chairs the Committee on Ways and Means that oversees trade issues in the House of Representatives, urging urgent renewal of the legislative provision.

But on Thursday, several U.S. senators joined forces with major labour groups, farm organisations, environmentalists and anti-poverty activists to denounce the free trade policies of the past decades and rebuff calls to extend President Bush’s so called fast-track authority.

“We have a choice to lower our standards or demand 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,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio.

Another lawmaker said renewing the provision would cost more jobs in the United States and fuel human rights violations overseas.

“Ceding trade negotiating authority to an executive unwilling to enforce labour or environmental rights abroad is downright foolish,” said Congressman Phil Hare, a Democrat from Illinois.


The U.S. lawmakers’ position received backing from labour groups such as AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; environmental organisations such as Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth; and faith and farmers alliances like the National Farmers Union and the United Methodist Church.

The TPA, or fast track, issue has grown ever more controversial with four proposed free trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia, and South Korea awaiting Congressional approval.

TPA requires an expedited up-or-down vote in Congress on trade deals, which cannot be amended. Fast track creates special rules that allow the executive branch to sign an agreement before Congress votes on it, and only gives lawmakers 90 days to vote on the agreement.

“This week, working families, both here and abroad, will gain a little more security as President Bush’s ‘fast track’ authority to negotiate trade agreements with minimal input from Congress will expire,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “For the last six years, this administration has negotiated one bad trade deal after another, each agreement passing by the slimmest of margins, over the objections of working people worldwide.”

“Congress must use this opportunity to assert its constitutional authority over trade policy, so that it can craft a set of rules that will put the interests of working families in the U.S. and around the globe front and centre – instead of those of corporate interests,” he said.

This set of rules includes features like revamping U.S. trade pacts, enforcing trade pact standards, advocating anti-sweatshop legislation, and establishing national security review of trade deals – features that are mostly absent under the controversial TPA which will expire on Jun. 30.

TPA advocates counter that the provision is a critical tool for facilitating trade liberalisation by streamlining the protracted process of drawing up trade legislation. They also worry that if TPA is not renewed or extended, which is most likely, trade partners may be less inclined to engage in the labourious talks needed under U.S. congressional oversight.

The U.S. is already engaged in talks on at least eight trade agreements, including with the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador and Thailand.

Without TPA, such talks could turn even more complicated for negotiators since interest groups say they now want to see a different trade policy that doesn’t lead to the loss of good jobs in the U.S. and one that avoids the stagnation of real wages and deals with violations of workers’ rights and the erosion of global standards.

Democrats in Congress have done the most so far to meet some of these benchmarks. Yet not all activists were satisfied, with much of their criticism focused on the fact that the four pending deals won’t immediately be affected by the expiration of fast track anyway, as they have already been negotiated.

The Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, the largest trade deal secured since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, is scheduled for last minute signing Saturday before fast track expires.

The deals with Peru and Panama, both relatively small in size, are also likely to pass Congress, especially after the Democrats reached a controversial compromise in May with the White House and Republican lawmakers that allows for more rigorous labour and environmental standards.

“While we are happy to see the sunset of a law that has caused misery for people in the U.S. and around the world, we are troubled by signs that the U.S. position on trade agreements is unlikely to change,” said Tom Loudon of the Alliance for Responsible Trade.

“The four pending trade deals completed just before Bush’s authority expires will still get the fast track voting treatment in Congress,” he said. “The fixes made to get these deals through the Democratic controlled Congress do not sufficiently address the problems with the NAFTA model and must not be passed.”

 
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