AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, right, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue prepare to testify in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, before a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Obama’s bid for “fast track” authority to advance trade deals being negotiated with numerous nations.
WASHINGTON — The fast track debate is escalating now that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) have introduced a bill to allow President Obama to sign corporate trade deals with very little congressional oversight. The reaction was immediate: Broad opposition formed in the House of Representatives and a movement mobilized to stop fast track.
Hatch and Wyden will be pushing hard to get their fast-track bill through the Senate Finance Committee as quickly as possible. A hearing is planned for Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee to mark-up the bill and perhaps put it to a vote.
The 2015 fast-track bill: More deception from corporate trade advocates
All three co-sponsors are long-time supporters of fast track and corporate trade agreements. They designed the bill to make it look like it serves the people and is more transparent than previous versions, but in fact it accomplishes neither goal. These myths are a deception to pass fast track for secretly negotiated, rigged trade deals. Hatch and Wyden spoke in flowery terms about the bill at a hearing on Thursday, but when all the flowers are removed not much has changed from previous fast-track bills.
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch provides an excellent analysis of the fast-track bill, putting it in the context of previous bills and showing how it provides nothing new. They describe the 2015 bill: “Most of the text of the Hatch Fast Track bill replicates word-for-word the text of the 2014 Fast Track bill, which itself replicated much of the 2002 Fast Track bill;” and, “In the past 21 years, this form of Fast Track authority has only been authorized once by Congress – from 2002 to 2007. In 1998, the House of Representatives voted down Fast Track for President Bill Clinton with 71 GOP members joining 171 House Democrats.”
The bill is a transfer of constitutional responsibility for trade from Congress to the president. One of the Wyden-Hatch talking points is that there are nearly 150 negotiating objectives in the fast-track bill, and they claim fast track gives Congress a role in setting the direction of trade. But the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been negotiated in secret by the Obama administration since 2009 and is nearly complete, so it would be impossible for these 150 objectives to be met.
One objective is enforceable environmental protections, but a leak of the environmental chapter shows there are no enforcement provisions. Will the U.S. Trade Representative go back and renegotiate the environmental chapter now? Of course not, and there was not a single question raised about that by Hatch and Wyden. The lack of any environmental enforcement makes the TPP unacceptable to environmental groups and many in Congress.
Another negotiating objective is stopping currency manipulation. United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard says negotiating objectives are nothing new and in the past they have been ignored. In a press release issued Thursday, he specifically pointed to stopping currency manipulation, noting the White House says it will not include the issue in negotiations. Indeed, U.S. Trade Rep. Michael Froman reiterated at the hearing that currency manipulation will not be included in the negotiations. Despite this blatant disregard for a congressional objective, no opposition came from Wyden or Hatch. They will push forward anyway, showing the fraudulent nature of the negotiating objectives.
Another major objective is enforceable labor standards. This is not new, as Public Citizen points out: “The 1988 Fast Track used for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) included a negotiating objective on labor standards, but neither pact included such terms.”
Congressional reaction to fast track
At the hearing, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the likely replacement of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) as Democratic Party leader, spoke strongly against fast track. He admitted he had once been a free trade advocate but now opposes these agreements because he has seen their impact on jobs, wages and the middle class. He described the process in the Finance Committee as “unfair” because the bill asks Congress to tie its hands for a trade agreement they have not seen. Senate Minority Leader Reid has been a long-time opponent of fast track and was key to stopping the 2014 push for such a law.
Sen. Sherrod Brown was extremely critical of the process, the extremely short notice for the hearing and the treatment of Congress by the U.S. Trade Representative. Brown warned the committee against a move to “fast track, fast track,” urging instead the need for a methodical, deliberative process for something that involves the largest trade agreements ever negotiated.
Brown addressed Froman, the country’s chief trade negotiators, describing efforts to see the TPP text. Many elected officials have been unsettled by the secrecy surrounding the bill. Brown was particularly concerned that staff members with security clearance, who can see Defense Department, CIA and other national security documents, are not be allowed to see the TPP. He pushed Froman on allowing staff to see the text, and Froman side-stepped the question, saying he would be happy to work with the committee. Brown said Froman’s answer meant a staffer with clearance would not be able to see the text. Brown concluded: “That begs the question: What are you hiding?”
Brown was also critical of relations between the U.S. Trade Representative and members of Congress, saying “USTR’s consultations with Congress have been — I hesitate to use this adverb, but I will — pathetically inadequate.” He described numerous examples of how his office had sought specific information and gotten no response. He pointed out that he was one of 60 senators to write about the need for strong, enforceable rules over currency manipulation and it took more than a year for the U.S. Trade Representative to respond. When the office finally did respond, it said it would do nothing to negotiate currency rules in trade agreements. Brown concluded by asking if there was anything Congress could do to get Froman to be more responsive and less dismissive of the Senate and House.
Meanwhile, on the House side, Politico reports “there is little indication that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi or Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer will support the legislation.”
The most important announcement on the House side in reaction to the fast-track bill came from Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), who said, “I’m out to defeat the Hatch-Wyden bill.” Prior to the bill being introduced he had not taken a public position, but on Friday he did and he published seven pages of objections in a report, “The Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA Bill: A Major Step Back on TPP Negotiations.” The objections make the case for every member of Congress to oppose the bill.
Prior to these developments The Hill had reported on the vote count in the House, concluding that as few as 15 Democrats will support the bill (Politico said only 10 Dems are openly committed) and that up to 60 Republicans will oppose the bill. That puts the vote total against fast track to well over the 218 majority needed.
Rather than building support and momentum for fast track, introduction of the bill seems to have had the opposite effect of galvanizing opposition and spurring mobilization against it.
Reaction to fast track from coalition opposing rigged trade
The largest coalition ever brought together to oppose corporate trade agreements, covering a broad spectrum of interests and political views, mounted an immediate, strong opposition to fast track.
Writing in The Hill on April 15, David Levine, CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, which represents 200,000 businesses, concludes that fast track will be bad for most U.S. businesses. He points out that the TPP was drafted in secret with the participation of only the largest multinational corporations whose goal is to protect their market dominance. The TPP will make it harder for start-ups, small and moderate-sized businesses to compete and will stifle innovation. He writes:
“The ‘fast track’ process will make it harder to stop a deal that could shield those companies from competition, and will hinder the ability of innovators to usher in the next wave of economic growth.”
More than 110 farm, food and consumer groups signed an April 13 letter opposing fast track. They described how large agribusiness was writing the agreement to protect their interests:
“Many of the same promises of expanded trade benefiting U.S. farmers and rural communities were made during the debates for NAFTA, CAFTA, and the U.S.-Korean Free Trade Agreements have failed to materialize. Instead, rural communities have been roiled by profound economic instability. Large agribusiness firms, empowered by new legal provisions securing investments and market access have been able to take advantage of wild price swings to gain even greater control over production.”
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a Thursday statement:
“We favor a trade policy that prioritizes domestic food production and goods supply chains in lieu of policies that put family farmers and ranchers out of business and send some of our best jobs, and the dreams of America’s middle class, overseas.”
His organization believes fast tracked agreements will devastate “America’s family farmers and ranchers.”
Indeed, the biggest concern about fast-tracking corporate trade agreements is the impact on jobs, wages and workers. The Steelworkers’ Gerard described the fast-track bill as a continuation of “outmoded trade policies that have decimated American manufacturing with more than 60,000 shuttered factories and millions of lost jobs.” He wrote, “I don’t know anyone who can name an agreement passed under fast track that has resulted in a net gain of jobs for working Americans.”
Likewise, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a call for action on Thursday, saying:
“At a time when workers all over the country are standing up for higher wages, Congress is considering legislation that will speed through corporate-driven trade deals. For decades, we’ve seen how fast-tracked trade deals devastated our communities through lost jobs and eroded public services. We can’t afford another bad deal that lowers wages and outsources jobs.”
Writing for the Huffington Post on Thursday, Teamsters President James Hoffa warned that fast track is “no longer theoretical,” noting, “Legislation that would allow agreements like the 12-nation TPP to slide unscathed through Capitol Hill has been introduced and will soon be considered by the Senate Finance Committee. And the consequences are dangerous for all Americans.” Hoffa concludes:
“If these agreements are so good for America, they should be able to stand on their own. But they can’t. Here’s why: They’re not fair to workers. They let big corporations ship jobs overseas and dump wages and benefits overboard along the way. They lead to lost jobs, shuttered plants and hollowed-out communities. And in return the vast majority of Americans only get unsafe goods and foods that make their families sick.
It’s time the productivity of American workers showed up in their paychecks, and that means no more unfair trade deals. Now Congress needs to ensure that happens.”
In a Thursday statement, Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, urged:
“We need to put the brakes on Fast Track or Trade Promotion Authority. Just like the TPP itself, there has been no transparency around TPA. We’ve had the start of a Senate hearing even before a bill was finalized and introduced. Now, that legislation is headed to mark up and a floor vote in just days. TPA pretends to be about trade, but in reality it is about protecting corporate profits above all else.”
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica describes the bill as a “blatant” move which represents the interests of “the will of the richest one percent of individuals, big business and their donors, not we the people.” Friends of the Earth went on to specifically criticize Sen. Wyden, writing:
“The Hatch–Wyden Fast Track bill is the same old model of closed door trade promotion legislation. Congress must not give away its constitutional authority and facilitate the ratification of environmentally destructive trade plans like the TPP trade agreement. There is no excuse for Senator Wyden, given widespread opposition to the bill within his home state of Oregon, to sell out the environment and workers in this way.”
The Sierra Club described the bill as “toxic.” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in a statement:
“This fast-track bill is toxic for Congress and for our air, water, and climate. We’ve seen this all before. This bill replicates an old, failed model of trade authority that rushes deals through Congress and strips out the vital protections and oversight that ensure trade pacts benefit American communities, workers, and the environment. Americans who care about clean air and clean water won’t support a bill that takes away the ability of those we elected to protect our basic needs. Members of Congress need to carefully evaluate the costs and consequences of trade deals on our economy and environment — not to haphazardly push pacts over the finish line. That’s why we are calling on members of Congress to take back the reins on trade and toss aside the failed fast track model.”
People are mobilizing to stop fast track for rigged trade
The movement opposing fast track for rigged trade is not only speaking out, it is mobilizing. On the weekend of April 18 there were more than 750 actions across six continents taking place as part of the Global Day of Action, 76 such events occurred in the United States.
Last week, when fast track was introduced, there were rallies and protests on Capitol Hill. A large rally was held outside the Senate, were 1,200 people came out in opposition to fast track. The AFL-CIO, Teamsters, Communication Workers, National Nurses and Steelworkers were among the many unions represented, and they were joined by multiple elected officials voicing their opposition to fast track. United Steelworkers’ Gerard called on workers to warn members of Congress that fast track could determine the future of their political careers. He said: “You make sure you tell them you put them there and you can take them out of there!”
There were also protests focused on the Senate Finance Committee. On April 14, activists “condemned” the committee, covering its doors with caution tape, renaming it the “Corporate Financed Committee” and posting a sign which stated the committee had taken nearly $237 million in the 2014 election cycle from big business. On the day the bill was introduced, protesters stood up and turned their backs on the committee and U.S. Trade Representative Froman and protested outside of the Senate office building.
Watch the protests which erupted when #FastTrack was introduced by Senate:
There have been protests, rallies, town halls and meetings with representatives around the country throughout the year. A particular focus has been Sen. Wyden, who has a strong history of supporting fast track and trade agreements. Activists have focused on him intensely since the beginning of the year in Oregon, Washington, D.C. and New York City, where his family has a home and bookstore. Democratic groups are threatening to oust him in the upcoming election for supporting fast track. Protests were a key reason why the introduction of fast track was delayed for two months and why it was ultimately defeated in 2014.
The coalition of more than 200 organizations has been working with a web tool, StopFastTrack.com, to make targeted phone calls to elected officials. Some coalition partners have their own tools for such contacts, resulting in tens of thousands of phone calls being made. In coming weeks there will be an intensive week of action, when the movement will focus on phone calls to Congress opposing fast track.
Since September 2013 there have been weekly Twitter storms in which activists have worked together to spread the word about the secretive trade agreements and fast track. The actions, held every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, cover different issues each week and have reached millions of people overcoming the media blackout.
The coalition knows they are up against the largest transnational corporations in the world, President Obama and Republican leadership in Congress. As a result, they are escalating their actions to ensure a solid majority in the House of Representatives opposes fast track. This is a winnable political battler if mobilizations continue to escalate.