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Unpacking Disingenuous GOP Complaints About Presidential Trade Authority

At midnight on June 30, Fast Track, which delegates Congress’ constitutional trade authority to the president, extended for another three years.

The congressional Democrats, who fought this broad give-away of control over trade agreements even when it was President Barack Obama’s request in 2015, could not even obtain a vote because the procedure is so rigged it automatically extends unless a “non-extension resolution” is passed. But that vote can only occur if the congressional GOP leadership allows it.

And the congressional GOP, most of whom supported the extreme Fast Track procedure but now are cynically howling about undue presidential authority over trade, chose not to take action.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to write the laws and set trade policy, while the executive branch represents the United States in negotiations with foreign governments. When it came to trade agreements, this arrangement required cooperation between the branches.

For 200 years, these key checks and balances helped ensure that no one branch of government had too much power over trade policy. But, starting with Nixon, presidents have tried to seize those congressional powers using Fast Track.

Fast Track, which supporters renamed Trade Promotion Authority as the procedure became increasingly controversial, empowers the executive branch to unilaterally select partner countries for “trade” pacts, decide the agreements’ contents, and then negotiate, sign and enter into the agreements — all before Congress has a vote on the matter. Normal congressional committee processes are forbidden, meaning that the executive branch is empowered to write lengthy legislation on its own with no review or amendments. And, then the president is guaranteed a vote on the done deal within a set amount of time with no amendments allowed and debate limited.

President Obama — despite his campaign promise to reject Fast Track — requested the authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A years-long battle ensued, with opposition coming from a majority of the U.S. public, most House Democrats and a sizeable bloc of Republicans, organized labor, environmental groups, public health organizations, family farmers, and many more. Despite the unprecedented strength and diversity of this coalition focused on a trade issue, Fast Track authority was passed by a one-vote margin in June 2015.

This delegation of Fast Track authority was for a three-year period with an automatic renewal for another three years after that. The only way to stop the automatic renewal of Fast Track would have been with a congressional resolution of disapproval.

The AFL-CIO sent a letter to Congress opposing Fast Track renewal in its current form because of its opacity and inadequate labor standards. But the broad coalition in Congress and outside that almost stopped Fast Track in 2015 did not organize a push to end the procedure because the disapproval mechanism is designed to only function if the congressional leadership allows it.

And, it was a telling spectacle to watch Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and other GOP senators going ballistic over President Donald Trump’s authority to do anything to stop trade cheating while revealing their disinterest in getting rid of the Fast Track legislative luge run. 

Fast Track has been the necessary swamp oil to grease the skids to pass pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other job-killing deals packed with special corporate protections and rights. The corporate lobby opposes the president having trade authority to combat trade cheating that costs American jobs, but loves Fast-Tracked trade deals that make it easier to outsource additional jobs.

The GOP inaction on Fast Track disapproval made 100 percent clear what is really going on: Team Trade Status Quo is keen to eliminate presidential authority on trade matters that break with their pro-job-outsourcing trade agenda while remaining committed to the current iteration of Fast Track with a view to trying to use it to get more-of-the-same trade deals.

That dynamic makes the current NAFTA renegotiation a moment of truth. The U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, is using this delegation of Fast Track to negotiate a NAFTA replacement that actually has a chance of making things better for working people rather than expanding greater corporate control over our lives.

The renegotiated NAFTA just might eliminate the job outsourcing incentives at NAFTA’s heart, including the system that empowers multinational corporations to attack our laws for taxpayer money before a panel of three corporate lawyers. And the NAFTA replacement may even add labor and environmental standards that could actually help raise wages and improve conditions for people throughout North America.

In the face of this potential game-changer of a trade agreement, congressional Republicans’ inconsistency on Fast Track belies the truth, that for them criticism of presidential trade authority was never about constitutional checks and balances – it was all about making sure their corporate cronies can do whatever they want.

However, the revised NAFTA deal is not done yet. And the GOP’s decision not to act against Fast Track extension suggests that they still think they can get the terrible, TPP-style NAFTA deal that they want.

The diverse coalition that fought Fast Track and that defeated the TPP must remain vigilant and show that a revolutionary new model for NAFTA that puts working people first is the only type of deal that will pass in Congress.