At precisely the same time that members of the Bush administration and Congress are scrambling to publicly declare their willingness to crack down on corporate wrongdoing, they are working behind the scenes to reward corporate lobbyists with a dramatic victory.

Key members of Congress reached an agreement late Thursday night to give President Bush Fast Track authority to secretly negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. The deal was necessary because, earlier this year, the House and Senate passed different Fast Track resolutions. Last night, representatives of the two chambers cobbled together a “compromise” plan that now faces final votes in the House and Senate.

If the legislation passes, Fast Track authority will be granted to Bush and a new era of trade liberalization will open the door to a dramatic expansion of corporate power in the US and abroad.

Under mounting pressure from the White House and the corporate lobbyists who continue to dominate the Congressional discourse, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-California, who is chairing the conference committee negotiations, and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, jumped into action this week on behalf of the very same corporations that Congress is supposedly moving to regulate.

Thomas and Baucus now want to spring a surprise Fast Track vote in the House within days. Thomas is reportedly pushing for a vote as early as Friday (July 26). “It has got to happen,” said Thomas, as he and Baucus frantically finalized a deal that guts protections for American workers and farmers that had been added to the Senate version of the legislation.

Why the rush? Not because workers, farmers, consumers, environmentalists or human rights campaigners are demanding it. The Fast Track legislation that has been presented to Congress has been opposed by labor, farm, church and community groups representing virtually every sector of civil society. The push to negotiate a compromise and then force a vote before most members of Congress have read the fine print is coming from multinational corporations that have long seen free-trade agreements as vehicles to undermine regulations of corporate behavior — including rules protecting workers, farmers and the environment.

Corporate lobbyists see quick passage of a Fast Track as essential because:

* Enactment of the legislation would jumpstart secret negotiations for a hemispheric trade agreement that allows multinational corporations to eliminate regulations, rewrite rules and shed responsibilities.

* The legislation makes it easier for corporations to use global trade groupings, such as the World Trade Organization, to eliminate existing public interest safeguards regulating accounting, energy, food safety, insurance, pensions and public utilities.

* The legislation will make it easier to continue weakening international accounting standards, a move that could make it impossible for the US to control the sort of abuses exposed in the Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom scandals.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the list of corporations contributing in recent years to the multi-million dollar lobbying effort for free-trade legislation — including Fast Track — includes the names of Enron and other firms now embroiled in controversies over accounting abuses and the use of campaign money to influence regulatory policies.

If this Fast Track “compromise” is approved by the full House and Senate, corporate lobbyists will be able to say that, even as Congress talks of controlling corporate abuses, corporations can still buy the legislation they want.

Corporate lobbyists are swarming Capitol Hill in anticipation of a quick Fast Track vote. Citizens can counter the corporate campaign with telephone calls to their House and Senate representatives. Use the AFL-CIO’s toll-free number to tell members of Congress to reject trade legislation that has not been adequately debated and that puts the interests of corporations ahead of those of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. The number is 1-877-611-0063.