Soon, members of the House of Representatives will cast a vote that could affect every American family for years to come. The vote is on Trade Promotion Authority, or fast-track, legislation that would give not only the current President but also a future president the power to negotiate complicated trade deals and then submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. The Senate approved fast-track in late May, after a spirited debate that raised many concerns about the wisdom of this approach.
So why should we care? Trade isn’t about tariffs any more. It’s about how nations agree on the right level of protections for the environment, public health and safety. It’s also about the role of science in informing those regulations, and the extent to which that science will be undermined by corporate priorities.
Trade can be a very good thing for the world, but not when big businesses are driving the agenda. Multi-national corporations are tired of having to deal with standards that might be tougher in Europe than the U.S., or vice versa. For example, when it comes to chemicals, Europe does a much better job, basing its assessment on the precautionary principle: Chemical companies have to demonstrate that their product is safe before it can be sold. On the other hand, our Food and Drug Administration continues to be the gold standard for science-informed processes for the approval or drugs and devices. What these corporations want is a trade agreement where “trade irritants”—what most of us consider protective regulation—is kept to a minimum.
So giant corporations have intensely lobbied to get these trade deals done with as little fuss—what many of us would call democratic deliberation—as possible. That’s why they are so bullish on fast track. Business groups say that expedited review of these complicated trade deals is the only way to get them done, ignoring the fact that dozens of trade agreements have been signed and negotiated in the past without fast-track authority.
So what are the four ways fast track is bad for science?
1. Congress won’t know enough about pending deals in time to actually improve them.
The bill before Congress, sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) would apply to all trade deals negotiated over for a period as long as six years. The legislation permits the public to comment on the deals, after they are completed, but that’s not very helpful. The public and Congress needs to know about the deals when they still have the opportunity to convince negotiators to change them if they raise concerns about their impact on public health and safety and the environment.
In essence, fast track puts the cart before the horse. Congress would be giving this Administration and a future Administration the power to get trade deals approved with an expedited process that doesn’t permit anything but an up-or-down vote. No amendments. The deals could be approved by just 51 percent of members in both House and Senate, depriving the Senate of the leverage that a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to defeat, would give Senators.
2. There are already ridiculous barriers for public access to information on how trade deals could impact health and safety. Fast track won’t help when it is most needed, right now.
The public doesn’t know what these deals say, and members of Congress aren’t that much better off. Members can go to a room in the Capitol and look at the trade texts, but they can’t take notes. Unless their staffs have a security clearance, they can’t see the texts at all. And Members can’t discuss what they’ve read with staffers who don’t have a security clearance. As one Senator put it during the Senate debate on fast-track, the classification of trade texts is pretty silly. This isn’t about going to war, it’s about selling stuff. And the European Union somehow has been able to make its texts accessible to the public online without national security being threatened.
3. Certain provisions that are being discussed in trade deals would allow big businesses to game the system even more by putting all the cards in their hand. Fast track will make this easier.
What we do know about the provisions being considered in these trade deals is very troubling. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has warned about the inclusion of Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)—which would allow multinational corporations to sue countries for damages if a regulation or policy at the national, state or local level harmed their profitability.
4. All of the progress the U.S. has worked on for our health, safety, and environment would be at risk.
We know how active states have been on chemical safety, on addressing climate change, on other protective measures, whenever they believe the federal government is not acting fast enough or vigorously enough. We also know that local communities and states both have deliberated on the merits of fracking and whether it should be permitted when the environmental and health impacts are not still being studied. Those state and local fracking measures also could be vulnerable to an ISDS challenge.
Sen. Barbara Boxer has raised concerns that California could be sued over its landmark law, AB 32, which commits the state to drastically cut carbon pollution to address climate change. Corporations have been winning these lawsuits over issues as varied as the refusal by a Canadian community to permit a quarry and the efforts by the government of Australia to make cigarette labels less glamorous to discourage smoking. We also know that trade partners in Japan and Europe, as well as domestic oil interests, would like the U.S. to lift its current restrictions on its exports of natural gas and crude oil. Increased exports would make it even harder for the world to address climate change and reduce its appetite for fossil fuels.
With so much at stake, it seems foolhardy for a Congress, so willing to challenge the Executive Branch at every juncture, suddenly to forsake its obligation to represent citizens and exercise oversight of these momentous trade agreements. Citizens should have the right to let their lawmakers know their views on these trade agreements and lawmakers should have the right to influence the content of those deals. Anything less than that fails to serve our democracy.