How trade policy affects U.S. workers and industries has become a very heated political and policy issue. A historic U.S. trade deficit, which Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan calls “unsustainable,” is causing the value of the dollar to be dragged down. The trade deals of the 1990s, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have resulted in massive U.S. manufacturing job losses. Eight years of NAFTA has cost 766,000 U.S. jobs with 35,262 job losses in Pennsylvania. For those who have found new employment, it is often service sector jobs at lower wages and without benefits. The government’s answer to trade job losses is too little too late: a meager program of retraining and extended unemployment compensation for which only a fraction of the workers hurt by trade can qualify. The program, called “Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA),” became a major issue in the extended battle over so-called Fast Track trade authority. Fast Track is the name for a procedure which delegates a wide swath of Congress’ exclusive constitutional trade powers to the president. Proponents of expanding NAFTA and other trade deals, which have caused large job loss and other problems, sought the extraordinary process because it was the only means to overcome public opposition to the current model of special interest trade deals.
After an intense 18-month campaign, on July 26, 2002, President George W. Bush personally trolled the halls of Congress for support in the House of Representatives for a delegation to him of Congress’ exclusive Article I, Section 8 Constitutional authority to set terms for international commerce. This extraordinary delegation of Congress’ trade authority — Fast Track — was opposed in 1994. This procedure was available for twenty years starting in 1974, but was only ever actually used five times during that period. Congress refused to grant this authority to then-President Clinton eight years ago.
Razor-thin passage of the legislation at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 27, 2002 after an array of procedural shenanigans secured Fast Track for President Bush, but both a consensus on the direction of trade policy and political momentum on Bush’s trade agenda are absent.
The Fast Track legislation President Bush signed on August 6, 2002 explicitly extends Fast Track treatment to a 31-nation NAFTA expansion, called the Free Trade Area of the Americas and to an expansion of the World Trade Organization to cover more service sectors of the economy. Passage of Fast Track means new threats of more U.S. job loss, including in the high-tech and service sectors, and damage to U.S. farmers is added to the already significant concerns about how Fast Track undermines the Constitution’s checks and balances.
Instead of adjusting the underlying trade rules to suit more Americans, the response by the White House and Republican congressional leaders to growing skepticism about NAFTA expansion and Fast Track was to launch an attack at efforts by Democrats to reform the TAA program. Already TAA has been often criticized for focusing too much on post-facto assistance for workers hurt by trade and not enough on ensuring trade policy creates well-paying U.S. jobs. Incredibly in the midst of the Fast Track debate, the business lobby and GOP leaders worked to shred the meager safety net available to some of those who lose their jobs to trade.