Congress Shouldn't Outsource Its Trade Negotiating Authority

The looming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is potentially the biggest so-called "free trade" agreement in the world. And you've probably never heard about it.

TPP negotiations are being held in secret. Right now. Behind closed doors. Even the U.S. Congress, which is granted sole authority under the Constitution to debate and approve trade deals, has been cut out. But big business has a giant seat at the negotiating table.

And Congress is inching toward considering approval of the trade deal on a straight, up-or-down vote. If that happens, lawmakers would be giving away their ability to amend the agreement once negotiators, with the heavy-handed influence of corporations, agree to it. Approval of "fast-track" authority would also limit debate on the deal and keep many of its details shrouded in secrecy until it is too late.

There's a lot to lose under fast track. American jobs could be put at risk and shipped overseas to nations such as Vietnam, which pays its workers unfair wages to toil in unsafe factories. Recently, 167 House members sent a letter to the Obama administration asking that it ensure provisions be put in place to protect textile workers. Similar concerns extend across many sectors, including for some 30,000 Teamster-represented dairy workers.

But if Congress approves fast-track authority, these issues may not even be debated. Even if they do, no changes would be allowed in the trade agreement's language. Lawmakers would have to decide whether to vote "yes" or "no" on a trade deal that's probably flawed but can't be fixed.

Fast track ties the hands of elected officials. Members of Congress couldn't amend TPP language, which would cause all kinds of problems. It could endanger American food and consumer safety, undermine labor rules, eliminate Buy American provisions, weaken environmental protections and even restrict the freedom of the Internet.

We can't allow this agreement to be rammed through Congress with an up-or-down vote. No one doubts the value of fair trade, but it's not fair if it puts American workers at a disadvantage and American consumers at risk. This treaty needs to be fully vetted for its impact on our families and not rubber-stamped as a partnership between big corporations and big profits, crafted in secret.

It's already tougher today for working and middle-class families to stay afloat than it was just a few short years ago. Millions of good jobs have been exported over the past two decades because of bad trade deals such as NAFTA, CAFTA and PNTR. It's no accident that the average American family's income has fallen over that period as politicians of both parties signed similar deals that trade U.S. jobs and safety standards for bigger corporate profits.

Let's not make the same mistake again. Lawmakers need to do their job and take a good look at this secretive trade deal rather than rush it through without full inspection. A quick up or down vote will not give the TPP the scrutiny it needs. U.S. workers and industries deserve better. It's time we gave it to them.