Opportunity Knocks

Under cover of war, the Bush administration pushes for fast track.

Jeff Shaw

California Rep. Bill Thomas and his free-trade allies are now pushing a new and even more virulent version of fast track trade promotion authority, a bill that could have devastating impacts on the environment and labor if passed. Their full-court press attempts to pass the bill are now coming to a head. Democrats and fair trade advocates are gearing up for a fight.

The president is having personal meetings with undecided legislators, while Secretary of State Colin Powell has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing for fast track. And U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, in a cynical attempt to capitalize on tragedy, declared that free trade promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle little more than a week after the disaster on September 11. Congress is expected to adjourn in early November, so the coming few weeks could be a watershed if the Thomas legislation comes to a vote.

The administration wants to have fast track authority in time for the WTO meetings in Qatar beginning on November 9. With this legislation in his pocket, Bush would be able to push through new trade agreements under the auspices of the WTO without any opportunity for meaningful congressional or public involvement. The legislation would require Congress to vote simply yes or no on any proposed trade deal without debate.

In 1998, an alliance of unions and greens beat back fast track legislation, and prior to the September 11 attacks, Democratic opposition to fast track was vociferous. Since then, public criticism has been muted, perhaps owing to the new emphasis on unity in wartimeor to people like Zoellicks call for free trade as a litmus test for loyalty. 

Terrorists hate the ideas America has championed around the world, Zoellick said in a speech before the Institute for International Economics on September 24. It is inevitable that people will wonder if there are intellectual connections with others who have turned to violence to attack international finance, globalization and the United States.

The Thomas bill has been extraordinarily polarizing. Even free-trade hawks like Washington’s Jim McDermottone of 12 Democrats who voted for fast track in 1998are balking. The vote on the Ways and Means Committee that sent the bill to a floor vote was telling: 13 of the 15 Democrats present, including career-long free-trade backers, voted against the bill. Along with Charles Rangel (D-New York) and Sander Levin (D-Michigan), Robert Matsui (D-California) even penned a stern letter to colleagues urging Democrats to rally against the bill. 

Their criticisms? That virtually no labor-standards requirements are contained therein; that the bill does not address key problems in environmental protection; and that Thomas effort cuts Congress out of its constitutional role, making no attempt to involve legislators at key junctures of the negotiating process.

Opponents also speculate that, if Thomas and his allies cant rally the necessary votes, the bill wont be brought to the House floor. The pro-trade proponents dont want to suffer the humiliating loss they suffered in 1998 again, says Patrick Woodall, research director of Public Citizens Global Trade Watch. If they dont bring it to a vote, the forces of fair trade have won. 

For the Thomas bill to pass the House, its sponsors need to maintain steady Republican support and get at least 20 to 25 Democrats on board. That means undecided congressional Democrats are at a premium, and the choices they make in the next few days are all the more crucial.

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