The day is upon us: After months of increasingly heated debate, the House of Representatives will vote Friday on granting fast-track trade authority to President Obama and his successors in the White House. The Senate has already passed fast-track legislation, and if it gets through the House this week, it makes the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership a near-lock to pass sometime later this year.
For that to happen, Republicans will have to hold defections to a minimum, because only around 20 Democrats are expected to vote for the bill. Why has fast track raised such consternation among labor groups, economists, and progressive activists?
We’ve tried to distill all the basic objections here. The White House and leading Republicans have had ample forums to make their case for fast track, and plenty of outlets have duly presented the pro-trade arguments. But here’s the case against fast track.
Remember—this just concerns the actual granting of trade promotion authority, which is what Congress is considering Friday. Objections to the actual TPP pact are far more voluminous, and for another day.
It’s not that enforceable. Fast-track authority is a basic bargain between Congress and a president: Legislators give away the power to amend trade agreements so that it’s easier for presidents to negotiate them without fear that all the delicate compromises will be changed by Congress after the fact. (It also agrees to lower the vote threshold for passage in the Senate—more on that rather dubious concession later.) In exchange, Congress writes in all sorts of objectives the president is supposed to follow when he or she is crafting trade deals.
But Democrats have repeatedly raised concerns that the objectives in the bill are basically just gentle suggestions that the president can freely ignore.
Representative Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways & Means Committee and a key player in several past trade deals, has been blasting this fast-track deal as a downgrade from past agreements. “On all of the major issues in the negotiations, the negotiating objectives are obsolete or woefully inadequate,” he said on the House floor last month. “They are basically a wish list.”
Take, for example, the objective on human rights. House Republicans claim fast track “recognizes the importance of trade agreements in advancing human rights and supports and includes a negotiating objective aimed to ensure implementation of trade agreement commitments to strengthen good governance, transparency, the effective operation of legal regimes, and the rule of law, which promote respect for human rights and create more open democratic societies.”