Congress tries to "fast track" secret trade deals without comment or oversight

A fair trade rally in Salt Lake City, Utah, in November 2013.
© Sierra Club

By Ilana Solomon, Director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program.

Right now there's a push to strip Congress of its ability to ensure that trade pacts protect communities, our families, and the environment. The promoted legislation, called "fast track," or trade promotion authority, would allow the President to submit flawed trade deals to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed and limited debate. In other words, Congress would surrender its chances to make bad deals better.

Fast track could lead to the quiet and expedited passage of dangerous trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), with little review, debate, or Congressional oversight.

Thankfully, some in Congress are standing up against this pressure from those whose pockets are lined by major international companies. Last week, 151 House Democrats and 23 House Republicans sent letters to President Obama opposing fast track. At a time when Democrats and Republicans can hardly agree on anything, this bipartisan display of opposition is refreshing - and indicative of just how bad of an idea fast track is.

Right now the U.S. is negotiating the TPP with eleven other Pacific Rim countries.

What about the TPP threatens communities and the environment? The TPP would affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from the price we pay for medicines, to the quality of our air and water, and our ability to stop dangerous practices like fracking.

On top of those threats, and despite the broad-ranging ramifications of the TPP, the pact has been negotiated in almost complete secrecy. No drafts of TPP texts have been released. And, while the public does not have access to the contents of the trade agreement, more than 600 corporate representatives do.

Given the disproportionate influence of corporations in shaping the TPP, it is not surprising that the pact will serve to benefit the interests of polluters over the interests of communities. In fact, leaked sections of the pact show that the TPP will include provisions that give corporations the right to sue a government for unlimited cash compensation -- in private and not-transparent tribunals -- over nearly any law or regulation that a corporation deems damaging to its expected future profits. Under similar rules in other free trade agreements, companies have launched more than 500 cases against 95 governments, often attacking common-sense environmental laws and safeguards.

In addition, the TPP would lead to a significant increase in U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas without any careful studies or adequate protections necessary to safeguard the public. This would mean an increase of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the dirty and violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations. It would also likely cause an increase in natural gas and electricity prices, burdening consumers, manufacturers, and workers, and increasing the use of dirty coal power.

Those are a lot of problems that need fixing. But fast track robs Congress of any chance to do so. Fast track was originally designed in 1974 when trade agreements focused on traditional matters, such as cutting tariffs and lifting quotas. But, as is clear, the TPP goes far beyond traditional trade issues. Instead of thrusting a flawed trade pact into the fast lane, the United States should work on a new model of negotiating and approving trade agreements that puts the power back in the hands of Congress and the people they are supposed to represent -- not corporations.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said when speaking about the recent bipartisan rejection of fast track, "Congress is right to want to do its job and have oversight over expansive trade pacts. Using fast track is like removing the seatbelts and airbags from a vehicle and racing it toward its final destination. It's an egregious way to speed up trade deals, which all too often put foreign corporations before families and communities."

174 members of Congress reached across the aisle and voiced their opposition to fast track. While we are plagued with constant gridlock in Washington, this rare bipartisan alliance gives us hope that fast track will be denied and and we can finally have a real conversation about the need for fair, responsible trade. Members of Congress that haven’t yet pledged to oppose fast track need to get on board now -- and make history by defining a new model of trade that protects communities, families, and the environment.

Tags: Congress | Fair Trade

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