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AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, pictured here, said on Tuesday of Fast Track authority: "There is no middle ground, and the time for deliberations is drawing to a close." (Photo: Broadbent Institute/flickr/cc)

Opposition Amassing to 'Outdated and Unsound' Trade Policies

'Fast Track is an abrogation of not only Congress' constitutional authority, but of its responsibility to the American people,' reads letter signed by over 2,000 global groups

Deirdre Fulton

With dissent fermenting on both sides of the political aisle, more than 2,000 civil society groups are urging Congress to reject Fast Track trade authority, warning that the legislation would pave the way for approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation proposal they say "replicates and expands on the most damaging provisions of past U.S. trade pacts."

The joint letter (pdf), signed by 2,009 labor, environmental, family farm, consumer, faith, Internet freedom, and other groups, describes Fast Track authority—which would empower President Barack Obama to negotiate trade deals that could not be amended or filibustered in Congress—as "simply inappropriate given the scope of the pending agreements."

It continues:

After decades of massive trade deficits, devastating job loss, downward pressure on Americans' wages, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements.

Fast Track is an abrogation of not only Congress' constitutional authority, but of its responsibility to the American people.

Furthermore, the groups lambast the so-called compromise provisions included in the Ryan-Hatch version of Fast Track legislation that recently passed out of committees in both the Senate and House.

Between "entirely unenforceable" negotiating objectives and transparency provisions that do little to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding global trade deals, the bill "does virtually nothing to increase Congressional oversight over trade policymaking," the groups declare.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, explained how Fast Track has implications far beyond the trade deals currently on the table. "President Obama may believe the TPP is good for America, even if from what we have seen of the text we strongly disagree, but who knows who will be president next, and if Congress approves this Fast Track bill that unknown president would get unacceptable powers to unilaterally dictate trade policies that are do or die for American jobs and wages and the consumer and environmental safeguards on which all of our families rely," she said.

Meanwhile, The Hill reports Tuesday that aspects of the Fast Track legislation are "sowing discord" among Senate Republicans, with one anonymous GOP senator telling the publication: "The polling is bad, and some people are getting nervous."

According to The Hill:

Potential Republican "no" votes on the bill include Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.).

Ten to 15 Senate Democrats are expected to vote for the fast-track bill, which means Republican leaders can only afford to lose fewer than 10 caucus members.

... Republican senators say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his leadership team have begun to count votes, a sign that they're not taking passage of the measures for granted.

Support is even shakier among divided Democrats, with labor groups and progressives vowing to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes on the issue. The AFL-CIO, for example, on Tuesday indicated that how candidates position themselves on Fast Track and the TPP will serve as a litmus test for the 2016 elections.

As Ben Wikler, Washington director for, said in a press release (pdf) Monday, "This is a basic, threshold question for Democrats: Will they stand with Elizabeth Warren and the public? Or will they vote against the people that, at least in the past, elected them to office?" 

And one Democrat in particular is being pressed to take a stronger stance on so-called free trade deals: 2016 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

"Clinton's support for trade deals has fluctuated with the political calendar," the Associated Press reported Tuesday. As first lady, she hailed NAFTA, but in a 2007 presidential debate, she called the agreement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico "a mistake."

During her time as a New York senator, the AP continued, she voted for trade agreements with Chile, Singapore, Oman, and Morocco but opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement. And while she said she opposed then-pending trade agreements with Korea, Columbia, and Panama, as secretary of state, she described those three deals as "critical to our economic recovery."

Likewise, Clinton has supported the TPP in the past, though AP notes that "now, as a candidate, that enthusiasm appears to have waned."

In a wide-ranging interview with Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Gerald Seib on Monday, Obama said the debate over Fast Track and the TPP has been marked by "a lot of exaggeration and a lot of histrionics."

Continuing his full-court press in favor of the deal, Obama said:

I think it is entirely appropriate for folks to have strong views, and trade deals have always been controversial. It's part of, you know, American politics.  And so I don’t mind people saying, you know what, we’re not getting enough of this or we’re not getting enough of that, I'd like to see more of this, I'd like to see less of that. And I've met with all of the opponents and my team has met with all the opponents, and I'm willing to continue to engage and debate, and there will be a broad, open debate about this issue. But when people start suggesting that these are secret deals, that there’s some hidden agenda, I have to remind them of who I am and what I've been doing for the last six and a half years and—and ask them maybe to—to keep things a little bit in perspective.

But in a column at the Washington Post on Tuesday, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel countered: "On the TPP, however, President Obama's critics aren't making the perfect the enemy of the good. They are raising fundamental questions about the thrust of our trade policies."

She noted:

The president accuses his opponents of arguing about the past, not the present. But he is recycling the same tired arguments that have been used to sell trade deals for more than 20 years. He touts the increase in jobs that might come from more exports, without even acknowledging the loss of jobs that results from expanded imports. He says export jobs pay more, which is true, but won’t admit that the jobs lost to imports pay even better.

"The president's foes aren't arguing against globalization or trade," vanden Heuvel added. "They are arguing that the rules that govern our trade and investment strategies have been rigged by global companies and banks to benefit themselves, not American workers."

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