While there is no denying the partisan rift in Congress, there is one issue on which a majority of Democrats and Republicans agree: They must retain their constitutional authority over trade.
Last year, Reps. Doris Matsui of Sacramento and Ami Bera of Elk Grove joined most Democrats and a sizable bloc of Republicans in the U.S. House in opposing efforts to revive an undemocratic, un-American 1970s-era procedure known as “fast track.” Established in 1973, its rare use has railroaded the most damaging trade deals through Congress.
Since the fast-tracking of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, California has lost more than 432,000 manufacturing jobs. Nationwide, 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, with large numbers of service-sector jobs now going offshore.
How did we get into this mess?
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Fast-track authority empowered the executive branch to unilaterally pick our trade partners and negotiate and sign sweeping pacts. Fast track allowed these precooked deals to be pushed through Congress with a vote guaranteed within 90 days without any amendments and with limited debate. In the 20 years since NAFTA, Congress has only agreed to enact fast track for five years.
President Barack Obama promised during his 2008 campaign that he would replace fast track with a more democratic process for negotiating and implementing trade agreements, and to replace the unsuccessful NAFTA model with one that actually fosters U.S. jobs, public health, safe food and a clean environment.
Unfortunately, Obama did not keep his pledge, and is now calling for fast track to be revived so that a NAFTA-expanding deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be steamrolled through Congress. This is not a popular move: 62 percent of U.S. voters oppose it, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.
Obama recently acknowledged the TPP is unpopular outside of Washington’s corporate lobbies, noting “a public perception generally that trade has resulted in an erosion of our manufacturing base as companies moved overseas in search of lower-wage labor.” The public perception is backed up by U.S. government data showing a massive $177 billion NAFTA trade deficit and more than 845,000 jobs lost. To fight this, Obama has no option but to paint the TPP as different from NAFTA.
Despite his best efforts, the TPP is NAFTA on steroids. It would expand NAFTA’s foreign investor privileges for companies that send American jobs to low-wage countries, such as Vietnam, where minimum wages are a fraction of those paid even in China. And like NAFTA, the TPP would ban Buy American procurement preferences that require U.S. tax dollars to be used to create U.S. jobs.
California’s workers cannot withstand another fast-tracked expansion of the NAFTA model. Consider the most recent version, a “free trade” agreement with South Korea. In the first two years of the Korea agreement, the U.S. trade deficit in the top 10 products that California exports to Korea ballooned by 47 percent, costing more jobs. This deal served as the U.S. template for the TPP.
The TPP would also expand NAFTA’s monopoly protections for pharmaceutical firms. That would mean fewer generics and pricier medicines. The TPP would jeopardize the safety of our food by exacerbating NAFTA’s limits on inspections of food imported from TPP countries like Vietnam, a major seafood exporter cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for widespread contamination.
And the TPP includes threats that go beyond NAFTA, including Hollywood-pushed “copyright” rules similar to those in the notorious Stop Online Piracy Act that the public and Congress rejected as a threat to Internet freedom. No matter what you think about free trade, such broad, controversial rules should be subject to congressional scrutiny, not swept through Congress in an unalterable fast-tracked trade deal.
Nearly 600 organizations representing millions of Americans have proposed a new system for negotiating and implementing trade agreements that would offer the benefits of expanded trade without the baggage of NAFTA-style pacts. In the next Congress, we will be relying on Matsui and Bera to stand up for us and vote to dustbin fast track for good. Then maybe our country can move on to discussing how to restore the 200 years of congressional prerogatives to set trade policy that fast track trashed.
Robert Longer is legislative-political director for Communications Workers of America Local 9421, which represents 1,500 workers in the Sacramento region.