President Obama is asking Congress to delegate to him extreme Fast Track authority to railroad into place job-killing trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Fast Track was an extreme and rarely-used procedure initially created by President Richard Nixon to get around public debate and congressional oversight. Fast Track is how we got into the job-killing, wage-flattening North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Thanks to Fast Track, NAFTA and the WTO included terms that promote the offshoring of U.S. jobs to low-wage countries.
Fast Track also empowered executive branch officials advised by large corporations to skirt Congress and the public and use secretive "trade" agreements to roll back a wide range of non-trade policies on which our families rely for safe food, a clean environment, affordable medicines, financial stability and more.
Fast Track set up a system of more than 500 official corporate U.S. trade advisors who have access to secret trade agreement texts and who have set the "U.S." trade agenda whether we have Democratic or Republican presidents.
Fast Track is such an extreme power grab that in the past 21 years Congress has only allowed it to go into effect for five years total. Why? Because under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to write the laws and set trade policy. For 200 years, these key checks and balances helped ensure that no one branch of government had too much power. But, starting with Nixon, presidents have tried to seize those congressional powers using the Fast Track mechanism.
Fast Track has only been used 16 times in the history of our nation, often to enact the most controversial of "trade" pacts, such as the NAFTA and the establishment of the WTO. Meanwhile, hundreds of less controversial U.S. trade agreements have been implemented without resort to Fast Track, showing that the extraordinary procedure is not needed to approve trade agreements.
Fast Track allowed the executive branch to unilaterally select partner countries for "trade" pacts, decide the agreements' contents, and then negotiate and sign the agreements – all before Congress had a vote on the matter! Normal congressional committee processes were forbidden, meaning that the executive branch was empowered to write lengthy legislation on its own with no review or amendments. These executive-authored bills altered wide swaths of U.S. law unrelated to trade – food safety, immigration visas, energy policy, medicine patents and more – to conform our domestic policies to each agreement's requirements. And, remarkably, Fast Track let the executive branch control Congress' voting schedule. Unlike any other legislation, both the House and Senate were required to vote on a Fast Tracked trade agreement within 90 days of the White House submitting it. No floor amendments were allowed and debate was limited.
Because Fast Track's dramatic shift in the balance of powers between branches of the U.S. government occurred via an arcane procedural mechanism, it obtained little scrutiny – until recently. Its use by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to seize Congress' constitutional prerogatives, "diplomatically legislate" non-trade policy, and preempt state policy, has made it increasingly controversial.
A president cannot obtain Fast Track empowerment without a vote of Congress. President Clinton, renowned for trade expansion, only had Fast Track authority for two of his eight years in office due to congressional opposition. Indeed, in 1998 Clinton's effort to get Fast Track authority was rejected by 171 House Democrats and 71 House GOP members.
The last time Congress authorized Fast Track was in 2002, with a 3:30 am vote before a congressional recess in which the antiquated mechanism was approved by just three votes. Since 2007, Congress has refused to authorize this extreme procedure, even after its proponents tried to escape Fast Track's bad reputation by renaming it "Trade Promotion Authority." The bill currently before Congress would replicate the widely-opposed Fast Track bill from 2002.
As a candidate, President Obama said he would replace this anti-democratic process. But now he is asking Congress to grant him Fast Track's extraordinary authority – in part to try to overcome growing public and congressional opposition to his controversial TPP and Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) deals. To prevent an expansion of this unfair "trade" model, Congress must not allow the executive branch to once again gain Fast Track's undemocratic powers.