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White House Selling "Free Trade" and "Fast Track," But Who's Buying?

New bill in Congress is getting back from Obama administration, but 'fast track authority' ill-received by most Democrats so far

- Jon Queally, staff writer

(Photo: Friends of the Earth)Though progressives both inside Congress and out have come out strongly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a bill introduced last week that would give President Obama "fast track" authority to sign the "free trade" pact without legislative wrangling, the White House appears to be redoubling its efforts to get what it wants.

As The Hill reports Tuesday:

The White House is making a major push to convince Congress to give the president trade promotion authority, which would make it easier for President Obama to negotiate pacts with other countries.

A flurry of meetings has taken place in recent days since legislation was introduced to give the president the authority, with U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman meeting with approximately 70 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has also been placing calls and meeting with key Democratic lawmakers in recent days to discuss trade and other issues.

The "fast track" bill in question was introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate last week by the reliable friend of big business Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The companion bill in the House was introduced by Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, though it has so far received no Democratic co-sponsors with only his fellow GOP caucus members lining up in support.

Earlier this month, more than 150 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Obama describing their concerns about the TPP and the fast track legislation under consideration.

“For too long, bad trade deals have allowed corporations to ship good American jobs overseas, and wages, benefits, workplace protections and quality of life have all declined as a result,” said Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and George Miller (D-CA) in a joint statement alongside the letter. “That is why there is strong bipartisan opposition to enabling the Executive Branch to ram through far-reaching, secretly negotiated trade deals like the TPP that extend well beyond traditional trade matters. At the core of the Baucus-Camp bill is the same Fast Track mechanism that failed us from 2002-2007.

“Our constituents did not send us to Washington to ship their jobs overseas, and Congress will not be a rubber stamp for another flawed trade deal that will hang the middle class out to dry. Instead of pursuing the same failed trade policies we should support American workers by making the necessary investments to compete in today’s global economy.”

Outside opponents of the deal itself—unwavering in their critique—have used the fight over "fast track" to exhibit what they see as the undemocratic nature of globalized trade deals like the TPP. And as the implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, many of those opponents argue that NAFTA's terrible economic, social, and environmental legacies should be all the warning needed to put the brakes on such deals.

"Like NAFTA, the TPP will handcuff our ability to set regulations in key areas like finance, industry, the environment, public procurement and fostering programs to create jobs at home," argued Manuel Pérez Rocha, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in a recent essay. "Free trade offers corporate subsidies for the rich and cut-throat competition for everyone else. So it should come as no surprise that communities across the continent and the Western Hemisphere are mobilizing in what can be expected as the battle against the TPP."

And Dave Johnson, writing for the Campaign for America's Future, explains how "fast track authority" is used to undermine congressional oversight and cut out the American people from the conversation over trade policy:

If passed, [fast track] means trade bills that come before Congress will have limited debate, will have to be voted on in a short period, and can’t be amended or filibustered.

This rigged process gives the big corporations an opportunity to set up a crisis atmosphere around trade agreement votes; by saturating the country with ads, the airwaves with TV and radio talkers, the newspapers with op-eds, and generally creating a fog of PR and spin promising jobs and prosperity-for-all if it passed, and the death of the economy and all children under the age of 5 if it does not. Meanwhile behind the scenes they will be handing out the cash and job offers to get the required votes.

Obama is expected to make a large public push for the TPP in his upcoming State of the Union address. Whether he can sell the idea to the American people or receive so far absent support from most Democratic lawmakers in Congress remains to be seen.

According to The Hill:

No House Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill, however, and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the Ways and Means ranking member, and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the panel’s former chairman, have both criticized it. They said the legislation doesn’t give enough leverage and power to Congress during trade negotiations.

Getting TPA passed would be a major victory for the administration and one that would please business groups, but the White House will first have to convince Democrats to go along with it.

One senior administration official said the White House has been in dialogue with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle “with a real focus on Democrats” to explain TPA and take into account their concerns.

“Any trade matter presents challenges,” the senior administration official said, adding that the White House officials are “devoted” to working with members on the issue.

The Democratic opposition makes it highly unlikely that the trade promotion authority bill, in its current form at least, will go anywhere.

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