Brakes on Fast Track
An odd thing has happened in the obscure but spirited fight activists
are waging against NAFTA's notorious Chapter 11 and the exclusive legal
privileges it gives to multinational investors. The Chapter 11
opposition is going mainstream and respectable. Not so long ago, the
only folks raising the alarm were globalization critics like Public
Citizen's Global Trade Watch or the Sierra Club--people the Wall
Street Journal likes to describe as "Luddite wackos." But what will
the Journal's editorial writers say about the National
Association of Attorneys General? Or the National League of Cities, the
US Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of State
Legislatures? These organizations and some others have studied what the
critics say about Chapter 11's true meaning and concluded, Good grief,
they're right! This so-called "investor protection" poses a fundamental
threat to state and local governments' ability to enact laws that
protect the public's health and general welfare.
The issue is currently in play again because the Bush Administration
(and all right-thinking free-trade cheerleaders) is pushing to expand
the same doctrine in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and
asking Congress for blank-check authority to negotiate (better known as
"fast track"). But this time Congressional skepticism is alive and
growing, stoked partly by the prestigious, bipartisan expressions of
concern. Chapter 11 was a sleeper provision in NAFTA that essentially
established a private court for capital--secretive arbitration tribunals
where corporations can bring suits for huge damage claims against the
United States, Canada or Mexico over new regulatory laws or other
actions that may crimp their profit-making. Chapter 11 borrows
property-rights language from the US right wing's domestic "takings"
movement and goes far beyond settled US legal doctrine [see Greider,
"How the Right Is Using Trade Law to Overturn American Democracy,"
October 15, 2001]. That is what alarms the state and local officials.
The Conference of Chief Justices from state Supreme Courts is also
expected to weigh in on the sovereignty issue.
Senator John Kerry is leading the fight for a corrective fast-track
amendment that would instruct the Administration not to negotiate any
new agreement that gives foreign investors greater rights than US
citizens. As a possible presidential candidate, Kerry has a big
problem--he has been an unblinking supporter of trade agreements, so he
has to show environmentalists and labor that he's not totally owned by
the multinationals. If his measure prevails, fast track must go back to
the House, where it was passed by only one vote in December. The
legislative action in any case educates and builds momentum for the
longer fight against these investor-dictated rules stealthily imposed by
so-called free-trade agreements.
The trouble with Kerry's amendment--and with fast-track authority in
general--is that these legislative instructions are really no more than
limp-wristed guidance. The negotiators can ignore Congress, as they have
in the past, and probably get away with it. A pending amendment with
much more bite, first proposed by Charles Rangel and Sander Levin in the
House, would create a mechanism for genuine Congressional leverage over
trade negotiations: the right of either chamber to force a vote on
withdrawing fast-track approval if the negotiators are straying from
their instructions. That would begin to bring daylight and
accountability to the murky politics of globalization. It would also
restore responsibility to where the Constitution says it belongs--in
Congress, not the White House.