At 3:28 a.m. Saturday, with senior members of Congress decrying the legislation before them as a "fraud" and a "hoax," the United States House of Representatives voted by a razor-thin margin of three votes to grant the Bush administration authority to secretly negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.
"This night will be remembered as one of the largest surrenders of Constitutional authority in American history," said US Rep. David Bonior, D-Michigan, as the House voted by a 215-212 to allow the president to engage in Fast Track negotiations to create a North American Free Trade Agreement-style corporate trading zone that would include virtually every country in the western Hemisphere.
The 215 supporters of the bill included 190 Republicans and 25 Democrats; while 183 Democrats, 27 Republicans and two Independents opposed it. Seven members did not participate in the vote.
Though organized labor has fought for years to block Fast Track legislation – and passionately opposed this bill – several of the members who cast critical votes in its favor were Democrats who had been elected with strong labor support, including California's Susan Davis, Washington state's Richard Larsen and Utah's Jim Matheson.
The House vote was seen as the critical test for the current bill, since an earlier version of Fast Track passed the House in December by a one-vote margin. The Senate passed an alternative version of the legislation this year by a wide margin. The differences in the House and Senate bills required a Conference Committee headed by free-trade enthusiasts from both parties – House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas, R-California, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana – to craft a so-called "compromise." With House consideration now done, the Senate is expected to pass the compromise bill next week, clearing the way for President Bush to become the first president in almost a decade to possess Fast Track authority.
Going into Saturday morning's vote in the House, both sides knew the margin would be exceptionally close. This raised the intensity of the debate to a level rarely seen in Congress.
A particular bone of contention was the fact that most members had not had time to read the measure they were voting on.
The most important trade and economic vote by the current Congress came just hours after members received emails telling them they could review the 304-page bill on a Congressional web site. The House had to employ the so-called "Martial Law" rule in order to waive the requirement that members get at least one day to review legislation.
Even members who often support free trade measures complained that they were being asked to pass omnibus legislation without sufficient consideration.
Rep. James McDermott, D-Washington, bitterly accused the bill's chief House sponsor, Ways and Means Committee Thomas, of hiding the legislation from members until it was too late for a serious review of its contents. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-California, a 12-term veteran of the House with many years experience on the Ways and Means Committee, decried the fact that most members would vote on the dramatic piece of legislation "sight unseen."
However, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who for two decades has battled the corporate free-trade agenda with a consistency unrivaled in the Congress, told the House the rush to judgement on the part of Fast Track supporters was no surprise. Condemning the legislation as a move to make it easier to create "corporate slums and global plantations with penny-wage jobs," Kaptur said: "They want to (debate) it in the middle of the night while most people are sleeping."
And so they did.
The debate, which came after a day that saw President Bush take the extraordinary step of personally coming to the Capitol to lobby for the legislation, may have played out in the middle of the night. But it did not lack for energy or passion.
"Fast Track essentially extends our current trade policies, and why in God's name would anyone want to do that?" demanded Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. "When you have a bad policy, why would you want to extend it?
Noting that the United States now has a $346 billion trade deficit and that ten percent of the nation's manufacturing base has eroded in the past four years, Sanders asked supporters of the legislation: "When will you catch on? When all of our kids are flipping hamburgers?"
Georgia Republican Charles Norwood described the Fast Track legislation as "the last nail in the coffin of America's textile industries," while other foes detailed the damage expansion of the current free-trade model would do to automotive, steel and agricultural industries in the US. Other members noted that the legislation did not include protections for workers who lose their jobs when a corporation closes a US factory and moves operations to China, that it creates a slush fund so that the administration can pay trade-related fines without Congressional approval, and that it removes the ability of Congress to defend protections for US workers and farmers. New York's Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, complained that the bill undermined even "minimum standards" for defending the rights of workers and the environment.
Fast Track critics explained that, while the legislation was bad news for America workers and farmers, it represented worse news for the people who live in developing countries that could become US trading partners in a Free Trade Area of the Americas governed by corporate-dictated "trade promotion" rules as opposed to democracy. Kaptur, who has traveled extensively to examine the impact of unrestricted free trade schemes, explained that, under NAFTA, conditions for Mexican workers and farmers had dramatically worsened. Rep. David Wu, D-Oregon, bitterly criticized a provision in the Fast Track bill that limits the ability of the US to use the threat of trade sanctions to promote human rights.
At every turn, Ways and Means Committee chair Thomas and a coterie of Fast Track backers mocked concerns expressed by opponents, gleefully suggesting that they were slow readers because they had not read the bill – which weighed six pounds when printed out – in the several hours that it had been available to them.
But the supporters of the legislation did not choose to confront the most stinging criticism to come from the opposition – the charge that it represented a capitulation by Congress to the very corporations that members are supposedly cracking down on in the wake of the Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom scandals.
"This Fast Track shifts power from democratic governance to corporations," boomed Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who correctly described the legislation as "corporate America's top priority."