Trade agreements can affect a huge range of laws and programs that determine how our economies work, how we grow and sell food and who benefits or loses. And, these decisions are locked into permanent agreements that in many cases supersede state, local and even federal laws.
Shockingly, these powerful agreements aren’t the result of a thorough and informed public debate. While bills in Congress can be contentious, they do provide at least the possibility that the public can weigh in and even influence the final legislation. After a prolonged fight that exposed concerns both about the content and the process, Congress approved Fast Track (also known as Trade Promotion Authority [TPA]) in June 2015. This means—at least for the next few years—that trade deals are negotiated behind closed doors with the final results presented to Congress to write implementing legislation where they only get an up or down vote, no amendments allowed, and limited floor debate.
This does not mean that the debate on TPP and other trade deals is over. Far from it. Fast Track sets the rules on when the text of the agreements will be available and when the votes will happen in Congress.
These trade agreements are negotiated behind closed doors; designed to favor global agribusiness, not farmers, workers or consumers; and often supersede state, local and even federal laws. Fast track rules mean that Congress will vote on a bill to implement this agreement with limited debate and no amendments.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the President negotiates international agreements, but Congress sets the rules on commerce and taxes. Under Fast Track, which was first approved in 1974, Congress gives up its ability to influence trade agreements before they’re done and their right to amend the bill that states how the agreement will be implemented. Fast Track is granted for specific times and agreements. The Fast Track authority approved in June will apply to all trade agreements negotiated through July 1, 2018, with a possible extension into 2021.
The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) completed negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in October 2015, so that will be the first trade agreement to use the 2015 Fast Track Process. It would also apply to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is currently under negotiation, and potentially other agreements like the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA) at the World Trade Organization. Having Fast Track authority is supposed to send a political signal to trading partners that there is support in Congress for whatever the USTR might negotiate, even though Members of Congress have very little access to the secret negotiating texts. Under Fast Track rules, the public is left in the dark on what has actually been agreed to until after the agreement is completed.
While the negotiating texts for TTIP remain secret, we already know the rules in TPP could set new requirements for food safety, public procurement, pesticides, GMOs and patents on seeds. These trade agreements benefit global agribusiness, not farmers, workers or consumers. Rules on digital privacy, access to essential medicines and investment protections that give corporations new rights to sue governmnets directly are also part of the trade deals currently under negotiation.
Fast Track sets out an accelerated process for votes on trade agreement implementation legislation in Congress. It requires the President to give Congress 90 days’ notice of his intent to sign an agreement and to make the text public after that. Once it is signed, Congress will vote on the implementing legislation, with up to 90 legislative days (days Congress is in session) for debate. A more detailed explanation of how the process works is available here.
The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Authority by Lori Wallach published April 2013
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress writes the laws and sets trade policy. And so it was for 200 years. Over the last few decades, presidents have seized both of those powers through a mechanism known as Fast Track.
Because Fast Track's dramatic shift in the balance of powers between branches of 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 internationally preempt state policy, has made it increasingly controversial.
Trade Secrets is a series on how the United States’ international agreements influence a wide range of policies, laws and corporate activities within our borders—and beyond. From food safety to climate change and from labor to consumer protection, trade has an enormous and often invisible pull on the actions governments take and the choices available to citizens. Trade laws often displace hard-won domestic policies.
This series is a collection of primers on trade agreements and how they shape our daily lives, our workplaces and our governments.