Why fast-track should fail

My House colleagues and I may soon be voting on legislation to fast-track trade deals through Congress. The bill has some powerful backers, from the Republican leadership to the president himself. Why, then, are so many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, ready to vote it down?

Why are experts from every academic discipline and all points on the ideological spectrum — including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, MIT economist Simon Johnson, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Reagan appointee Clyde Prestowitz —questioning fast-track or the trade deals it is designed to support?


To me, the answer is simple: because this is not a theoretical debate. Everyone can see the results of bad trade policy playing out right now, in real time.

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, in force since 2012, has already cost the U.S. economy 75,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The next in line, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is built on the same model. It forces Americans to compete with low-wage workers in poor countries like Vietnam. And where U.S.-Korea had just two parties, the TPP has 12, representing 40 percent of the global economy.

We are not deterred by the fast-track bill’s so-called negotiating objectives on labor rights, human rights, environmental protections, access to medicine, preventing currency abuse and a host of other issues. These objectives are little more than a wish list — they have no teeth. Even if they were enforceable, history tells us it would not matter. In practice, when such protections have been included in trade deals, they have not been enforced. That is the record of the current administration.

A study released in December by the Government Accountability Office concluded that labor standards in the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement failed to improve conditions in Colombia — or any other developing country under similar provisions. Even after these standards were supposedly strengthened, more than 100 Colombian union organizers were assassinated, and hundreds more were threatened with murder.

Just last week, the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency reported that Peru — a partner in the TPP — was facing an epidemic of illegal logging because of a “complete failure” on the part of either party in the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement to enforce environmental obligations.

The administration has announced that the TPP will not even include standards dealing with another flagrant abuse, currency manipulation. Economist and Peterson Institute founder C. Fred Bergsten — a supporter of the TPP — has found that this practice has cost the U.S. as many as 5 million jobs. One of the worst historical offenders, Japan, is a TPP country. So, as Dr. Bergsten says, failure to include an enforceable currency manipulation chapter in the agreement represents a colossal missed opportunity. It means that any economic gains could be wiped out overnight by other countries — our own trade partners — cheating on exchange rates.

At the same time, trade agreements now allow foreign governments and corporations to challenge U.S. laws as “barriers to trade.” Last month, a World Trade Organization tribunal rejected U.S. country of origin food labeling rules. Many of us struggled long and hard to put those rules in place, but with a stroke of its pen an anonymous bureaucracy was able to destroy them. Legislation to repeal the rules is already making its way through Congress.

Literally no domestic regulation is safe — including our food safety laws. Inspectors at American ports are already struggling now to cope with a deluge of potentially toxic seafood from TPP countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. The TPP could take away the tools they need to do their jobs just as it increases imports from these countries still further.

Fast-track has always faced bipartisan opposition, no matter who is in the Oval Office. Despite repeated requests, Congress has only allowed it to be in force for five of the past 21 years. And the current fast-track bill is scarcely any different from the one that died in the House last year.

After all the suffering trade agreements have put our country through, my colleagues and I will not throw away our duty and constitutional authority to scrutinize them. The stakes are simply too high.

DeLauro has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1991. She sits on the Appropriations Committee.