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.