Think Forward blog

Treaties, Trade Agreements and Government by the People

Posted June 15, 2015

For much of our history, trade agreements were considered treaties. According to the Constitution they had to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. The House does not participate in ratification of treaties (Article II, Section 2).

By the late 19th century Congress realized it was far too cumbersome to require a Congressional vote to change individual tariffs, so they delegated to the President the authority to use tariffs as a flexible tool in the exercise of foreign policy.

In the 1970s trade agreements stopped focusing on tariffs and began addressing an increasingly broad group of rules (e.g. procurement, copyrights and patents, product standards, subsidies, environmental standards) called non-tariff trade barriers. Modern multi-faceted trade pacts have more to do with pre-empting national, state and local rules that could favor communities or regional economies or domestic businesses or the environment than with lowering tariffs.

Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution gives Congress a little wiggle room by making a distinction between “treaties” and “agreements”. Congress can change the ratification process for agreements. But it is highly probable that the Constitution’s Framers would have expected Congress to do so only with respect to agreements of limited importance.

In 1974 Congress made clear it thought otherwise. That year Congress acquiesced to a dramatic reduction in its and by extension the citizenry’s authority over trade rules. Under the new procedure the President was allowed to unilaterally negotiate the final terms of a trade agreement. He would then present the final agreement to Congress, which would be unable to change it in any way and would have a limited time for debate. Instead of requiring ratification by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, trade pacts would require only a simple majority from both chambers.

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A Game of Chicken

Posted June 11, 2015 by Dale Wiehoff   

Used under creative commons license from Meena Kadri.

Last week the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that India is unfairly preventing the import of poultry and eggs from the U.S.  India instituted the ban against U.S. dumping of poultry products in 2007, ostensibly to protect against the spread of highly pathogenic Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu, though more likely to protect its own rapidly growing domestic poultry industry from giant U.S. companies like Tyson. The Obama administration's aggressive challenge to India’s ban sends a clear message to trading partners, particularly those in the Trans Pacific Partnership, that the U.S. will not tolerate trade barriers against U.S. corporations; we are sure to see more disputes brought to the WTO in the future.

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Climate Change - What's Trade got to do with it?

Posted June 8, 2015 by Patrick Tsai   

Used under creative commons license from Oxfam.

In December, the world’s leaders will meet for two separate important global meetings. The global climate talks in Paris aim to chart a course for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The World Trade Organization ministerial in Kenya will advance global trade rules. Unfortunately, the two meetings will take place without acknowledging the inescapable connections between free trade rules and climate change.

Globalization – largely promoted through free trade agreements – has brought about more expansive and complex supply chains.1 Liberalized trade agreements, extending more rights to transnational corporations, have been linked to increased GHG emissions attributable to industrialization and the global transportation of goods and services.2 Though globalization has contributed to economic growth in some countries, there has been extensive documentation of how it has also brought increased fossil fuel consumption and environmental degradation.3,4,5

Many concerned with globalization’s effect on the environment advocate for more emphasis on localized systems. These localized systems emit fewer GHGs due to smaller supply chain networks. Nate Hagens, of the Post Carbon Institute, stated in a July 10, 2014 lecture, “A lower consumption, more local and regional future is not only needed [for reducing carbon emissions] but probably more desirable [for creating community].”

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Will Obama get Fast Track?

Posted June 8, 2015 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Used under creative commons license from backbone_campaign.

The congressional vote on Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has entered into a period of what appear to be rather convoluted twists and turns. Whether that path eventually leads to its approval—giving the President authority to negotiate trade deals in secret and then bring them to Congress for a yes or no vote, no amendments allowed—or to its defeat is simply impossible to predict at this point. The way this debate is playing out highlights several basic concerns, starting with transparency but extending to the content of the trade deals as well.

Fast Track is an extraordinary surrender of congressional authority to the President. It was first created during the Nixon administration, and has been granted for a total of only five years in the last two decades. It last expired in 2007. If approved, the current bill would cover the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and any other trade deal that could emerge in the next six years. Much of the focus in the media has been on TPP, since that agreement is closer to completion, but the proposed TPA is much broader than that, and extends into the completely unknown terrain of the next presidential administration.

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Rally against the Tar Sands and Free Trade

Posted June 5, 2015 by Patrick Tsai   

Image credit: MN350

Tomorrow, June 6, thousands of people from across the Great Lakes region will come together for the Tar Sands Resistance March in St. Paul, MN. This will be the largest action against tar sands to date in the region; speakers include Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, and Keith Ellison among others. Tar sand extraction and distribution is driven largely by trade policy set out in NAFTA. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has been quoted as saying, “… a major tenet of NAFTA … the U.S. was guaranteed unfettered supply in exchange for unfettered access by Canadian exporters to its market.” The articles pertaining to energy and corporate rights found within NAFTA highlight the shortcomings of our current trade system. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to march against the tar sands. If you believe in fair trade, national sovereignty and human rights, you should attend this rally.

By Congressional Research Service estimates, the tar sands contribute 14% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil.1 The European Union places increased emissions from tar sands at 22% higher than conventional oil.2 Increased emissions are attributed to the extensive processing needed to convert the tar-like bitumen to oil.3 Mining of the tar sands has also lead to massive deforestation in the Alberta province. In terms of climate change and the environment, the tar sands represent a global catastrophe.

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Seeing the forest through the trees - a northwoods community makes a plan on climate

Posted May 28, 2015 by Tara Ritter   

 High school students presenting at Rural Climate Dialogue in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.


Rural communities are already being affected by a changing climate, and each community’s experiences and responses are unique. Because of the politically-charged nature of the term “climate change” it can be a difficult topic to discuss in rural communities, but addressing the impacts of extreme weather and a changing climate is necessary for community resilience. Last week, 18 residents of Itasca County, MN met for the second of three Rural Climate Dialogues across Minnesota. Few of the people in the room had met each other, but following brief introductions it was clear that they all shared a local sense of pride for the natural beauty of the northwoods and lakes – and concern for its future. 

The Rural Climate Dialogues are a joint effort between the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center to engage rural communities in creating bottom-up solutions to climate change. The 3-day process, based on the Citizens Jury model, moves quickly in introducing participants to each other and establishing discussion ground rules to encourage open and productive conversations about controversial subjects. The goal of this gathering was for participants to better understand climate change impacts on Itasca County and create a set of recommendations for how the community can respond.

Over the first two days, participants heard from a wide range of speakers and local experts. First, Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota climatologist, provided a weather history specifically tailored to north central Minnesota. The power of this presentation came from the localized data, which demonstrated that climate change, which is often viewed as a global and distant problem, is already showing up in northern Minnesota.

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Obama’s Dizzying Spin on the Environment and Trade

Posted May 27, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Backbone Campaign.

Kayaks protesting Shell Oil's arctic oil drilling platform in the Port of Seattle.

The Obama Administration claims that the new round of secret trade deals will be the greenest ever. Its latest attempt to sell that story was released earlier this week in a slick new report titled “Standing Up For The Environment: Trade For A Greener World.” As with most of the spin coming from the U.S. Trade Representative these days – there’s a lot of “trust us” bluster in the report, marketed with unattributed numbers and fancy graphics. But, perhaps most notably, it ignores the largest environmental issue of our times –  climate change – and the numerous concerns raised by environmental groups about how these trade deals will damage the climate, not protect it.

While the report touts new provisions on wildlife protection, animal trafficking and illegal logging, we’ll have to take the Administration’s word for it. The environmental chapters for the Trans Pacific Partnership (with 11 Pacific Rim countries) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with Europe) are still secret documents. But there are good reasons for concern. A leaked version of the TPP environmental chapter posted on WikiLeaks last year was ripped open by U.S. green groups for not being “fully enforceable.”

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WTO’s COOL Ruling confirms that trade treaties undermine national laws

Posted May 24, 2015 by Shefali Sharma   

Used under creative commons license from **RCB**.

On May 8th, President Obama told a crowd in Oregon: No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws. Twelve days later, the House Agriculture Committee voted 38-6 to repeal in its entirety country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) for beef, pork and poultry. The House vote came in response to a May 18 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the U.S. had violated global trade rules by requiring supermarket labels on beef and pork to indicate where livestock was born, raised and slaughtered. The meat industry is elated.

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Monsanto Wants to Move to Switzerland. Why Is Obama Doing It Favors?

Posted May 21, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   


The longstanding principal goal of U.S. trade policy is to advance U.S. economic interests.

So, why is the Obama administration fighting so hard to help Monsanto -- a company that is openly trying to slash its taxes by moving its headquarters from St. Louis to Switzerland?

Earlier this month, Monsanto made an initial offer to purchase the Swiss-based Syngenta. The deal, if completed, would allow Monsanto to move its headquarters from outside St. Louis to Switzerland, thereby reducing U.S. corporate tax payments. According to financial analysts at Piper Jaffray, Monsanto would gain – and U.S. taxpayers would lose – about $500 million per year in tax revenues.

It would also create the largest seed and crop chemical company in the world. 

At this moment, the Obama administration is undertaking a high profile effort to knock down global resistance to genetically engineered food and crops.  It is advancing trade treaties both for Europe (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP) and Asia (Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP) to accomplish this goal.

Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of seeds, many of which are genetically engineered.  It would be a major beneficiary of these treaties.

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Trade Rules Create Obstacle Course for a Better Food System

Posted May 15, 2015 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

There were some decidedly Kafkaesque aspects of the Congressional debate this week on Fast Track legislation, designed to speed through the passage of secret trade deals that could have a serious impact on our food system. At first, the Senate refused to approve a bill to limit debate on Fast Track. Then, when the Senate did approve that bill, it turned out the real debate over Fast Track wouldn’t be happening in the Senate at all, but rather in the House (but not yet).

What?? Essentially, the Senate votes this week were over a procedural mechanism (cloture) to bring Fast Track to a vote (but not yet over Fast Track itself). The actual Fast Track vote will likely come in the Senate in the next few weeks. As we’ve discussed before, Fast Track would limit Congressional debate on trade agreements to an up or down vote, no amendments allowed. It would include the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP, with 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, with Europe) and any other trade agreements negotiated over the next six years, including those completed by the next President. The votes this week were notable mainly because the Senate action had been expected to pave the way for a much more contentious vote in the House of Representatives. And it didn’t work out that way at all.

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