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Let's Derail Fast Track Authority

April 16th, 2015
By Debbie Barker, International Programs Director
Center for Food Safety

Everyone knows that the Obama Administration and Republican leadership in Congress rarely agree on anything, but when it comes to sealing the deal on non-transparent trade agreements they seem to be bosom buddies. Deviating from typical political party positioning, Republican leaders are advocating that Congress grant the Obama Administration “Fast Track” authority or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), with an eye toward passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. This morning we got the news that a Fast Track deal was reached in Congress.

Fast Track essentially eviscerates our democratic legislative process. How? Traditionally, the Executive Branch negotiates a trade treaty. Congress must then ratify the treaty through the legislative process of review, discussion, amending texts, and other procedures. But Fast Track radically changes the legislative process by extending executive powers while restraining the influence of Congress. It allows the Office of the President to negotiate trade agreements that Congress must then accept entirely or reject entirely; no amendments are possible. Additionally, this straight up or down voting process is put on a “fast track” — meaning the trade agreement must be voted on within a limited amount of time and debate and discussion is also limited. This swallow-it-whole approach to ratifying trade agreements is a radical deviation from a careful, deliberative legislative process that should be a hallmark of a democracy.

Instead, democratic processes are subverted under Fast Track. This is especially disturbing given that today’s trade agreements—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—extend far beyond traditional trade agendas of setting quotas and tariffs. Now they include measures that impact jobs, food safety and public health, environmental standards, and other democratically crafted policies. Forcing Congress to move quickly on trade deals, without proper review, debate and revision, is an insult to democracy.

Why the urgency to grant Fast Track? Because limiting Congressional review and public input is probably the only way to pass the TPP, a trade agreement that’s negotiated behind closed doors for almost fifteen years among twelve nations—Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam.  The agreement contains many contentious issues involving agriculture and food safety, pharmaceutical provisions, and many other sectors. Critics contend that the deal could suppress many consumer, labor, and environmental protections.

Take food safety. The pact would increase seafood imports from TPP countries, many of which raise farmed fish using chemicals and antibiotics not allowed in the U.S. (PDF) Supporters of TPP propose that border inspections will catch such tainted fish but already federal inspection agencies cannot adequately inspect existing seafood imports. Currently, just over 1 percent of imported fish and seafood shipments are inspected or tested.

TPP’s inclusion of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, is yet another troubling aspect of the agreement.  Under ISDS, multinational corporations can sue a trading partner country in a closed-door international court over a domestic environmental, public health or other standard that it believes inhibits its potential profits. 

As Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, ISDS undermines U.S. sovereignty.  Indeed corporations have successfully sued national governments under ISDS provisions in other trade agreements. As one example, Canada reversed its ban on a gasoline additive, MMT, a known human neurotoxin, when a U.S. corporation sued under North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) investor-state provision. This case is not an anomaly—corporations have extracted more than USD $400 million from NAFTA governments by challenging water and forestry policies, bans on toxins, land-use rules, and more.(PDF)

Further, under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) dispute resolution process, the WTO recently ruled that U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labels are discriminatory and, depending on the decision in the final appeal, the U.S. may have to change its labeling policy that provides consumers with knowledge about whether tuna was caught in a manner that did not cause harm to dolphins.  (The U.S. has denied tuna-dolphin safe labels to tuna caught in Mexico because the country’s fishing industry captures tuna, which swim underneath dolphins, using purse seine nets.  This process often results in injury or death to dolphins caught in the nets.)  

Given such decisions under trade courts, it is reasonable to be concerned that TPP countries growing genetically engineered (GE) crops might challenge U.S. state regulations requiring that genetically engineered (GE) food be labeled.   Conversely, threats of U.S. corporate lawsuits could inhibit, or “chill,” some TPP developing countries from setting higher labor, public health, environmental, and other standards.

We cannot continue to trade away our democratically hard-gained laws that safeguard citizens. Let your congressional representative know that Fast Track needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.

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