More Information on Fast Track Trade Authority

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Fast Track is an extreme delegation of Congress’ constitutional trade authority. It empowers a president to choose prospective trade partners, negotiate deals and sign a trade pact all before Congress has a vote on any element of it – and then railroad the deal through Congress in only 90 days with limited debate and no amendments. Thanks to Fast Track, U.S. trade pacts that are packed with corporate special giveaways and that promote the outsourcing of U.S. jobs have been rammed through Congress, including the original NAFTA, the agreement establishing the WTO and more.

Fast Track empowers executive branch officials to skirt Congress and the public and use secretive “trade” agreements to roll back a wide range of non-trade policies on which our families rely for safe food, a clean environment, affordable medicines, financial stability and more. It sets up a system of more than 500 official corporate U.S. trade advisors who have access to trade agreement texts kept secret from the public, press and often even Congress. These corporate advisors have been able to use Fast Track to set the “trade” agenda whether we have Democratic or Republican presidents.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has exclusive authority to write the laws and set trade policy. The Executive Branch has exclusive authority to negotiate with foreign nations on behalf of the United States. For 200 years, these key checks and balances helped ensure that no one branch of government had too much power. But, starting with President Richard Nixon, who hatched the Fast Track concept, presidents have tried to seize those congressional powers.

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 NAFTA. 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 that have broad support.

Fast Track allows 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 has a vote on the matter! Normal congressional committee processes are forbidden, meaning that the executive branch is empowered to write lengthy legislation on its own with no review or amendments. These executive-authored bills have 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 “trade” agreement’s many non-trade requirements. How could such legislation get through Congress? Remarkably, Fast Track lets the executive branch also control Congress’ voting schedule. Unlike any other legislation, both the House and Senate are required to vote on a Fast-Tracked trade agreement’s implementing legislation within 90 days of the White House submitting it. No floor amendments are allowed and debate is limited.

Thus, Fast Track effectively empowers the Executive Branch to “diplomatically legislate” by negotiating terms in “trade” pacts to which domestic law must then be conformed. For instance, after Big Pharma could not win an extension of 17-year medicine patent monopoly terms in Congress, it succeeded in changing U.S. patent law to a 20-year monopoly period for medicines by inserting that requirement into NAFTA and WTO. The implementing bills of those agreements, which skirt normal committee review and amendment processes and were railroaded through Congress with limited debate and no amendments, then amended the U.S. domestic patent statutes to comply with the trade-pact terms.

Because Fast Track’s dramatic shift in the balance of powers between branches of the U.S. government has occurred via an arcane procedural mechanism, it initially obtained little scrutiny. But its use by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to seize Congress’ constitutional prerogatives – both with respect to writing laws and setting the terms of trade – and to preempt state policy, has made it increasingly controversial. After President Bill Clinton used a Fast Track grant won by George H.W. Bush in 1991 to pass NAFTA and WTO, Congress refused to reauthorize Fast Track for almost a decade after it became clear t hose pacts extended patent terms for Big Pharma, rolled back domestic food safety protections, led to a wave of job-outsourcing and imposed limits on domestic financial stability regulation.

George W. Bush then won a grant of Fast Track from 2002-2008. As his second term began in 2013, President Barack Obama wanted Fast Track authority to try to railroad into place the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Congress refused for years and Obama’s Fast Track grant was defeated on the House floor in June 2015. But Fast Track proponents used procedural gimmicks to revive it and pass it weeks later. Anger about Fast Track’s underhanded passage helped fuel the unprecedented movement that succeeded in ensuring that there was never a majority in Congress to pass the TPP whether or not Fast Track was in place, thus sealing the deal’s demise. However, Fast Track authority remains in place until 2021.

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