Fast Track was an extreme and rarely-used procedure that empowered executive branch negotiators advised by large corporations to skirt Congress and the public and use “trade” agreements to rewrite policies that affect our daily lives – from the stability of our jobs to the safety of our food. Past “trade” deals rammed through Congress under Fast Track have empowered foreign corporations to attack domestic health and environmental policies, enabled pharmaceutical firms to raise medicine prices, and equipped banks with a tool to roll back financial regulation.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to write the laws and set trade policy. For 200 years, these key checks and balances helped ensure that no one branch of government had too much power. But, over the last few decades, presidents have seized those congressional powers using the Fast Track mechanism.
Fast Track has only been used 16 times in the history of our nation, often to enact the most controversial of “trade” pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Meanwhile, hundreds of less controversial U.S. trade agreements have been implemented without resort to Fast Track, showing that the extraordinary procedure is not needed to approve trade agreements.
Fast Track allowed the executive branch to unilaterally select partner countries for “trade” pacts, decide the agreements’ contents, and then negotiate and sign the agreements — all before Congress had a vote on the matter. Normal congressional committee processes were forbidden, meaning that the executive branch was empowered to write lengthy legislation on its own with no review or amendments. These executive-authored bills altered wide swaths of U.S. law unrelated to trade – food safety, immigration visas, energy policy, medicine patents and more – to conform our domestic policies to each agreement’s requirements. And, remarkably, Fast Track let the executive branch control Congress’ voting schedule. Unlike any other legislation, both the House and Senate were required to vote on a Fast Tracked trade agreement within 90 days of the White House submitting it. No floor amendments were allowed and debate was limited.
Because Fast Track’s dramatic shift in the balance of powers between branches of the U.S. government occurred via an arcane procedural mechanism, it obtained little scrutiny – until recently. Its use by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to seize Congress’ constitutional prerogatives, “diplomatically legislate” non-trade policy, and preempt state policy, has made it increasingly controversial.
A president cannot obtain Fast Track empowerment without a vote of Congress. President Clinton, renowned for trade expansion, only had Fast Track authority for two of his eight years in office due to congressional opposition. The last time Congress authorized Fast Track was in 2002, with a 3:30 am vote before a congressional recess in which the antiquated mechanism was approved by just three votes. Since 2007, Congress has refused to authorize this extreme procedure, even after its proponents tried to escape Fast Track’s bad reputation by renaming it “Trade Promotion Authority.”
As a candidate, President Obama said he would replace this anti-democratic process. But now he is asking Congress to grant him Fast Track’s extraordinary authority – in part to try to overcome growing public and congressional opposition to his controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) deals. To prevent an expansion of this unfair “trade” model, Congress must not allow the executive branch to once again gain Fast Track’s undemocratic powers.