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Why Trade Promotion Authority Should Be Defeated

Why Trade Promotion Authority Should Be Defeated

For immediate release:

Thursday, December 6, 2001 01:26

Why TPA should be defeated

· House of Representatives to vote on the Thomas Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill today, though it is still questionable whether it will pass

· Republicans offer $25 billion aid plan for the unemployed in order to secure crucial democratic votes

· Bush fails to invest sufficient political capital in support of the "fast-track" measure

· Labor and environmental provisions are not adequately addressed in the Thomas bill, nor the threats to U.S. patents, health standards and social legislation

· TPA would have Congress abandon its constitutional role as the overseer of commerce and reduces the representation of constituent interests

· TPA proponents bully critics by exploiting the 'terrorism card' in an attempt to garner final votes, along with scare tactics aimed at frightening the Hill that the U.S. would no longer be competitive without fast track authority

The House of Representatives votes today on a bill that would grant the president trade promotion authority (TPA), although it is uncertain whether the legislation will pass. While the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman and sponsor of the TPA bill, Bill Thomas (R-CA), claims the measure is bipartisan, the noticeable lack of Democratic support makes this claim somewhat specious and self-serving. Although President Bush has claimed TPA to be a top legislative priority, he has not succeeded in gaining bipartisan support and - barring a miraculous shift - his last-minute lobbying efforts are unlikely to win the 30 to 40 additional votes needed to pass the initiative. One of the reasons for this is that only at the last moment did he begin to twist arms and invest the political capital necessary to switch votes. By that stage it became a matter of too little, too late.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, with his prestige on the line, has been hammering away at the "terrorist" issue as one reason why the trade bill should be passed. He repeatedly reminds his audience that for 50 years the White House has possessed TPA, but not in the past five years. He points to the fact that there are 133 trade agreements in effect worldwide, of which three involve the U.S. He also maintains that in the approaching round of WTO trade talks, the U.S., without TPA, will be weaponless. His critics, however, argue that without Congressional vigilance, the White House could threaten national sovereignty by making a wide range of domestic legislation vulnerable to a de facto veto by this country's trading partners.

Moreover, a majority of Democrats, even moderates who have supported other free trade agreements, oppose this bill for a number of legitimate reasons that are being entirely ignored by TPA advocates. Most importantly, the Thomas TPA proposal does not sufficiently address labor and environmental concerns, as it does not guarantee that these issues will be at the core of future trade agreements. To be effective, labor and environmental standards must be incorporated into the text of negotiated trade agreements and not be treated as 'afterthoughts.' The history since 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement's (NAFTA) side agreements on labor and the environment indicate that they are perceived as optional rather than mandatory standards. As a result, for example, NAFTA has ushered in a harsher economic market, causing the Mexican minimum wage to decline by as much as 20 percent in certain sectors and impoverishing eight million previously middle class Mexicans. Also, NAFTA has negatively affected the U.S. labor market.

Passage of the Thomas TPA bill would also undermine Congressional oversight, an ironic consequence considering Congress' specifically-defined constitutional role to oversee commerce. Granting the president TPA would prevent Congress from amending trade agreements and impose a time constraint on debate, allowing only an up-or-down vote on the trade proposal. According to Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), "This bill would cut the Congress out of the process. It would eliminate the constitutional obligation that Congress has right now to serve the people." The bill is also fundamentally flawed because it invests too much authority in the executive branch, almost marginalizing Congress in the process.

Attempts by TPA proponents to tie the bill to anti-terrorism measures are unsubstantiated and should be viewed more as a tawdry tactic than an authentic issue. There has been some talk that USTR Zoellick's job possibly is on the line, so among other near-panicky tactics, he has continuously played the terrorist card in hopes of gaining support for TPA

even making the absurd claim that "If we do not get it [TPA], no one will negotiate with us." Despite such extreme claims, it would be bizarre if opposition to TPA should be equated with being "unpatriotic" or "soft on terrorism." The bipartisan "love-fest" in Congress following September 11, though legitimate for national security legislation, does not and should not extend to basic trade policy. Zoellick's critics maintain that trade negotiations should not be pigeonholed into being an anti-terrorism issue because they involve complex and multi-leveled concepts, none of which share a terrorism factor.

Yesterday, in a last-ditch effort to garner crucial votes, Republican leaders at the House presented the idea of spending around $25 billion in order to assist the unemployed, a clear tactic designed to appease Democrats on the economic stimulus legislation. Rep. Thomas also revealed a plan that would direct more than $2 billion to help those who were laid off due to the effects of imports or the September 11 attacks. However, many House Democrats remain unmoved and continue their opposition to the TPA bill.

TPA belies the essence of the democratic process, and could facilitate the passage of agreements detrimental to workers' rights, the environment, and other key aspects of civil society. Since these concerns are not effectively addressed in the Thomas TPA bill, Congress might be wise to reject it and work towards a more balanced trade policy that addresses social issues as integral components of any final form.

Roschaali de Silva and Sarah Staton, Research Associates, Council On Hemispheric Affairs.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."


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