Fast-track: The next attack on democracy
Conservatives are usually the most strident defenders of the doctrine of original intent, the idea that we should follow the will of the Founding Fathers in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
In a strange twist on that idea, Republicans are warning us that the Constitution has “tied the hands” of the president in trade negotiations.
The problem, it seems, is that the Constitution states in Article I, Section 8 that: “The Congress shall have Power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” The original intent seems pretty clear: Congress should regulate international commerce.
The “problem” is that Congress is sometimes more prone to public pressure (also known as democracy) than the executive branch. That is, citizens who organize to pursue their interests have more chances at influence in the House and Senate than they do when the whole show is run out of the White House. As a result, congressional participation in regulating commerce with foreign nations has at times made it more difficult for corporations to ram through the kinds of trade deals that help them line their pockets at the expense of those citizens.
The solution to this occasional excess of democracy? For the Bush administration and Republicans in the House, the answer is fast-track legislation.
Well, it used to be called fast-track, until the Bush spinmeisters realized that the term makes it sounds as if the rich and powerful might be trying to pull a fast one on U.S. citizens, which of course they are. So, the concept has been renamed “trade promotion authority,” and congressional Republicans are gearing up to push the legislation through before they head off for vacation in August.
Fast-track authority made it easier for the first Bush administration to negotiate, and the Clinton administration to pass, the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement. But fast-track authority expired in 1994, and the most recent attempt to bring it back, in 1998, was defeated in the House by a 243-180 vote. But now fast-track is back, and the Republicans are talking about a bipartisan coalition to push it through.
Under fast-track, members of Congress would be abandoning their duty instead of taking their rightful role in regulating international commerce. The proposed law allows the president to bring trade agreements he negotiates before Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments and with limited debate.
In other words, fast-track severely limits the ability of the representatives elected by the citizens of the United States to influence trade policy. Given that trade policy is becoming as important, if not more important, than military muscle in shaping the world, fast-track is not only an attack on democracy but on democracy in the arena we most desperately need it.
If reinstated, fast track will certainly make it easier for the Bush administration to ram through a version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas -- a hemispheric NAFTA -- that will increase the power of corporations and marginalize the interests of labor organizers, human-rights activists and environmentalists.
From the point of view of Bush administration officials, congressional Republicans and other defenders of the right of corporations to run the world, that's precisely the reason HR 2149, the “Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2001” introduced by Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., is needed. (Read the bill at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:h.r.02149:)
During the debate over this, expect to hear the usual distortions from Bush. Already he has said that fast-track is necessary so that he can avoid a trade agreement that has “codicils on it that frighten people from trading with us.”
Bush knows full well, of course, that “people” aren't frightened by agreements that protect workers' rights, human rights and the environment. Corporations are frightened by such protections, which limit their ability to rake in massive profits off the vulnerable economies and peoples of the developing world.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com. Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/