Good riddance? Fast-track fades away

Good riddance? Fast-track fades away
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The latest iteration of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015,” colloquially known as “fast-track,” is set to expire on July 1, 2021. The Biden administration hasn’t made renewal a priority. Instead, top trade policy official U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine TaiKatherine TaiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden increases vaccine requirement for federal workers Asian American leaders eager to talk voting rights with Biden Biden's trade agenda is off to a rocky start MORE is conducting a top-to-bottom review of unfinished trade negotiations initiated in the Trump administration, focusing on enforcing the labor provisions of the New NAFTA (the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA) and taking steps to halt a trade war with the European Union by negotiating a cease-fire in the 17-year dispute over subsidies for Boeing and Airbus.

The current fast-track law, which governs how trade agreements are negotiated and dealt with in Congress, is worse than out of date. Its negotiating objectives put U.S. trade negotiators in a straightjacket that explicitly prevents addressing climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, mandates extreme intellectual property provisions that limit access to affordable medicines and prioritize profits for Big Pharma, and creates an obstacle course for a better food system. The law promotes diluting worker protections and environmental standards viewed as “nontariff barriers” to free trade by multinational processed food, agri-chemical and industrialized meat corporations that lobbied heavily for its passage. Its consultation provisions exclude civil society and limit the information provided to members of Congress, even though under the Constitution, Congress holds the authority to regulate tariffs and trade. 

The Biden administration has promised a different approach. In an April 2021 speech, Tai stated: “For too long, we believed that trade liberalization would lead to a gradual improvement in environmental protection as countries grew wealthier from increased trade flows. But the reality is that the system itself creates an incentive to compete by maintaining lower standards. Or worse yet, by lowering those standards even further.” 

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Tai’s analysis is correct. Fast-track reflects the old way of thinking — and its renewal is inconsistent with the Biden administration’s ambitions for worker-centric and environmentally friendly trade policy. As a starting point, USTR and Congress could center on three basic ideas: 

One, democratize trade policy: USTR must reinvent the trade negotiation and consultation process, which is imbued with secrecy and influenced by corporate lobbyists with preferential access to negotiators. Corporate lobbyists shouldn’t have more access than civil society. Congressional consultation can’t be an afterthought when agreements are concluded or bypassed entirely through overreliance on executive agreements. Transparency is at the heart of a more democratic process. USTR should release text and discussion papers for public analysis in a timely manner between negotiating rounds, whether for free trade agreements or in other trade-related fora.

Two, get priorities right: The climate emergency, increasing inequality, and fragile national and global supply chains require new solutions. While fast-track included a long list of negotiating objectives, they were mostly centered on expanding business opportunities and “streamlining” regulations and standards to the lowest common denominator to facilitate trade flows. For all its flaws, we have a framework for global trade, set through bilateral agreements and the World Trade Organization (WTO). There’s no need to rush into new agreements. Our priorities as a nation should drive trade policy, not the other way around.

Three, clean up the mess: While there are limits to fixing deeply flawed deals, the U.S. could start with a few simple but powerful changes even without TPA. It could insert the Paris Agreement into the list of enforceable trade treaties in USMCA (something Canada and the U.S. expressed openness to). It could declare a moratorium on trade disputes involving climate commitments, starting with challenges to renewable energy programs that generate local jobs. Congress could reinstate the country of origin labeling for meat and dairy, fixing labeling issues that led to WTO challenges, and reenacting the implementing legislation. This is a priority for family farmers and ranchers as a tool to untangle unfair corporate supply chains that undermine their livelihoods. USTR could abandon its challenge of Canada’s sensible dairy supply management program, which stabilizes prices and supplies. The list goes on, but the point is to start.

The July 1 expiration of fast-track legislation is a golden opportunity for the Biden administration to get trade right. Its demise shouldn’t be mourned, and USTR shouldn’t heed pressure from some members of Congress, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the Chamber of Commerce to renew it. To their credit, so far Tai and the Biden administration have been willing to outline a new path. Now it’s time to take concrete steps to implement their vision.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn is program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, where she leads work to challenge free trade agreements as they relate to food and farm systems and to advance agroecological solutions. 

Sharon Anglin Treat is a senior attorney at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and focuses on the intersection of international trade agreements with environmental, food and public health policy.