Tags: Wallach | free trade | agreements | fast track

Free Trade Controversy Is Back, with Higher Stakes

By    |   Monday, 13 May 2013 12:40 PM

In a recent presentation of her book, The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority, broadcast by C-SPAN's Book TV, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, reviewed the history of the concept of so-called "fast track" trade legislation, an issue that, like the cicadas that are about to emerge in the East, emerges periodically from a dormant stake and is about to do so again.

This article will begin with some pertinent observations from the author's own experience, review remarks of the author regarding the history and current status of the fast track debate and then conclude with some final personal observations.

It should be stated at the outset that "fast track" is a shorthand expression for the provision of authority to the president to short circuit the process of negotiating trade agreements by enabling the administration's trade representatives to negotiate the agreements with their foreign counterparts, then submit them to Congress for a quick up or down vote, with little or no opportunity for Congress to affect the content of the agreements.

This controversy occurs at the intersection of what the chief executive of the United States holds is the power to conduct foreign policy and the view of Congress that the "commerce clause" under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution confers these powers upon Congress.

At the time of the Clinton impeachment, I happened to encounter one of the principal Republican advocates of fast track authority, and he said he was working to get fast track authority through the House. I responded that it was incongruous (in Congress?) that Republicans should support giving more power to a president whom they are trying to impeach.

On another occasion, the longtime Democratic chairman of the House Banking Committee delivered a fairly lengthy soliloquy on free trade in which he asked why, if it's really free trade, there are so many lawyers and so much paper required.

Now for Wallach's presentation. Given that the American Revolution War was largely sparked by trade disputes with Britain, the issue of which branch of government holds the authority to determine trade policy goes that far back. But Wallach stated that the issue began to take shape around 1890, when a pattern developed of Congress delegating authority to the president, then taking the authority back periodically, so that an ebb and flow occurred over more than a century.

A key development occurred with the enactment of the Reciprocal Tariff Act of 1934, which set the stage for the later negotiation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), followed by four subsequent rounds. In 1958 Congress provided for a veto power over proposed agreements.

During the Johnson administration and the so-called Kennedy round, the administration rewrote the anti-dumping provisions, and Congress rejected the deal; then nothing happened for 10 years.

According to Wallach, President Nixon is to blame for making a bigger power grab by extending the authority of the executive to enable it to change U.S. law by means of trade agreements, and the powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., agreed to extend the authority to non-trade issues, such as procurement and product safety. The administration needed only to notify Congress; otherwise, it had the power to pick the countries with which to negotiate, set the contents of the negotiations, negotiate the deal, sign the agreement, write the legislation within the chief executive and then give Congress 60 days to approve the deal without amendments. The deal could be reviewed and vetoed by Congress five years after the fact.

The Reagan-Bush administration went even further in extending executive authority to a huge array of non-trade policies, even local land use. The 1988 grant of fast track authority to President George H.W. Bush to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and World Trade Organization (WTO) came with provisos requiring consideration of labor and environmental issues, but Bush ignored these directives.

When the administration sought to negotiate deals with Mexico and the WTO, Congress tried to take the authority back. The bottom line was that by the time the Clinton administration tried to use fast track authority to push WTO and NAFTA agreements, the authority was about to sunset, and from 1995 to 2002, there was no fast track authority.

President George W. Bush succeeded in getting fast track authority restored by a single vote in the middle of the night, but his use of the authority provoked a backlash even among Democrats that had supported free trade legislation, because they had come to resist the creeping encroachment on domestic laws.

Now the posture of the Oministration is causing consternation among liberals, because when President Obama was a senator and a candidate, he criticized the pending free trade agreements and promised to give Congress a larger role in negotiating them.

Now, however, the administration is seeking new fast track authority to negotiate deals under the rubric of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that could reach far beyond trade matters without Congress having an opportunity even to attend the negotiations or see the language, while administration trade officials negotiate with lobbyists from multinational corporations.

Even the leading Senate Democrat on this issue, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has invoked the powers of Congress under Article I, Section 8. Congressional Republicans such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who have supported free trade in the past, are also locked out of the negotiations.

However, others in Congress are talking about reviving fast track, now labeled "trade promotion authority," despite statistics Wallach cites that show a significant decline in U.S. exports to the countries with which it has entered into free trade agreements. Among the issues she fears will be dealt with are safe food regulations, price savings on pharmaceuticals, natural gas exports, procurement, location of big box stores and immigration.

I want to offer two points in conclusion. One is that this interminable controversy arises from the unique structure of the U.S. government that was supposed to establish checks and balances among the three branches, but in the area of trade has often operated to accrete power to the federal government, including unelected bureaucrats. Wallach fears that enforcement authority may even extend to a tribunal of the United Nations under the pending trade deals.

Finally, it is ironic that Wallach concludes that the liberals have done just about as much as they can to fight for the right of Congress to reclaim its constitutional authority, and the outcome now depends on the stance congressional Republicans will take. Therefore, I would observe that this is another issue, similar to the debate over subsidies for zombie banks, where participants on the left and right are staking out positions in opposition to the administration. while supporters of the agenda of multinational banks and industrial corporations in both parties are on the other side of the struggle.

Watch this space for more coverage of these issues as the process unfolds in the current Congress.

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In a recent presentation of her book, The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority, broadcast by C-SPAN's Book TV, Lori Wallach reviewed the history of the concept of so-called "fast track" trade legislation.
Wallach,free trade,agreements,fast track
Monday, 13 May 2013 12:40 PM
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