Business Forum: Go slower on free trade

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The U.S. economy may have undergone a sea change in the past quarter-century -- with workers' incomes shrinking while major shareholders' incomes soar -- but the drive among our corporations and government for more free-trade agreements plows relentlessly ahead. The Obama administration, like those of Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush, is seeking a trade deal, this one with Pacific Rim nations.

What's in the pact isn't clear, as the administration has clamped a tight lid on the proceedings. What is clear is that the era of free-trade deals has been one of growing economic inequality in the United States and the decoupling of U.S. corporate interests from those of the American people. These deals have done little to nothing to offset the job and income losses that U.S. workers have endured during this period.

Most of these problematic deals were enacted under "fast track" rules that kept Congress from advancing the interests of U.S. workers once the deals were submitted to lawmakers. Under the procedures in effect at the time, Congress was not allowed to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement or the extension of permanent normalized trade relations to China; these deals required only a simple majority to pass the Senate, which was obliged to hold a vote within a few weeks of House passage.

Fast-track rules expired, and bills to renew them were unsuccessful after Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, but the Obama administration is widely expected to seek reinstatement before sending the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Hill.

Already, the administration has kept congressional input on the pact to a minimum -- more precisely, at zero -- by excluding from deliberations everyone except the roughly 600 trade "advisers" from big businesses the pact would directly affect.

But it's not just businesses that would be affected. Global trade accords have a direct impact on workers and consumers, whose representatives have had no access to the TPP draft language. As The Washington Post recently reported, Canada and Mexico have appealed -- and are likely to re-appeal -- to the World Trade Organization to block an Agriculture Department rule requiring meatpackers to label their products so that shoppers know the nation where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, a regulation similar to one the WTO previously ruled was discriminatory.

Given the WTO's stance, you might think that food-safety advocates would be as much a part of the TPP negotiations as, say, lawyers for multinationals. But they're not.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is no fan of fast-track rules or the past generation of trade deals. Although it's too late to create a seat at the TPP table for public interests, he plans to advocate a process, in a talk he's giving Friday, that would allow Congress to "broaden the debate and agenda" around the Trans-Pacific Partnership when the administration asks lawmakers to set the rules under which Congress will consider the treaty.

Mr. Brown would like any such treaty to designate as a rules violation, subject to real penalties, a nation's manipulation of its currency to lower the price of its exports to uncompetitive levels. He'd like language that ensures state and local governments could favor bids from local or U.S.-based contractors for infrastructure construction jobs.

And he'd like broader and more effective worker-retraining policies than the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which applies only to workers whose jobs have been transplanted abroad and not those unemployed because a factory's relocation has wiped out their entire town's economy. A trade deal, Mr. Brown says, "should both protect workers and small businesses and better prepare them for globalization."

Should the administration ask Congress to restore fast-track authority, Republicans will face a fascinating conundrum.

GOP legislators frequently, and falsely, accuse the president of usurping all manner of powers. If enacted, however, fast-track would be a genuine usurpation of powers, as the Constitution stipulates that Congress shall have the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations."

Despite the Founders' pronouncement, U.S. big business -- the GOP's main funding source -- has overwhelmingly preferred to vest that power in the president. A vote on fast-track would force the GOP to choose between the fundamental interests of its funding base and its own irresistible impulse to thwart the president at every turn.

Whatever their motivation, enough Republicans may join Democrats like Mr. Brown who want to open up trade negotiations to a wider range of interests than multinational corporations, to create a trade regime in which the American people actually matter.

bizopinion

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.


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