I have an idea for a way that Congress, as an institution, can reverse the dismal confidence ratings that it currently is suffering: namely, do the people's business. It is not a novel idea and it is one that is directed in a bipartisan way to all 535 plus elected members and a good starting place would be the upcoming vote on something known as the Fast Track agreement to expedite consideration of a mammoth free trade agreement that will affect clearly 40 percent of the world's economy.
The agreement, known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a secretly negotiated set of standards that cover 29 chapters, yet only five of those chapters actually deal with trade issues. It involves 12 nations, including the United States and there are so-called "docking" provisions that open the door to expanding membership to other nations. The negotiations are highly secretive, unless of course you happen to be one of the 600 corporate lobbyists who have special clearance from the U.S Trade Representative. These individuals have access not only to the negotiating texts but also to the negotiators.
Problematic to the Congress is that a large part of their low-approval ratings are due to the fact that the public has lost confidence in a system that places a premium on access and the perceived corruption of money influences upon our policymaking institutions. As one who spent over two decades working either in or with the Congress I can attest to the pervasive influence that special interests with political action committees and the temptation of large campaign contributions have on the institution. People are suspicious of what appears to be insider trading and feel that their interests are not well represented by the body as a whole, although they continue to believe that their representative is not the problem, it is all the others.
This perplexing dichotomy leads to still large incumbency re-election rates and the inability of our leaders to draw consensus among competing interests on contentious issues is further exacerbated by super-majority litmus tests, whether through abuse of the filibuster in the Senate or adherence to the "Hastert rule" in the House, which stipulates that votes must secure a majority of the majority before being considered. All told, the public is less concerned with these procedural machinations than they are with the fact that nothing appears to be getting done.
Now we are staring at the prospect of another procedural abomination that actually will grease the skids for the enactment of something that under normal circumstances would not have a snowball's chance in hell of passing. In order to push through a trade treaty that the Constitution specifically delegates to Congress through Article 1, Section 8 stipulating that Congress has the exclusive authority "to regulate commerce between nations", a Nixon-era procedural relic allows Congress to transfer that authority to the Executive Branch.
Under Fast Track authority debate is limited to 20 hours and there is no ability to amend the signed negotiation. Congress either votes up or down on the whole treaty. This has been employed 16 times in the history of our nation and was the pivotal maneuver that allowed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to pass in 1994. Since NAFTA has been in effect the U.S. Labor Department has certified that more than 2.5 million American jobs have either been destroyed by offshoring or displaced by imports.
At a time when jobs and the economy continue to be the highest priority of most American households and income inequality continues to widen and squeeze out the middle class here we are preparing to once again entertain an agreement that will similarly have the effects of offshoring more American jobs, and without the ability to even modify or amend secretly negotiated agreements with multinational corporate fingerprints all over them. What is most frustrating about this turn of events is that it would be self-inflicted. Congress will have done it to itself and the American people if they agree to allow this treaty to be fast-tracked.
It is difficult to focus people's attention on seemingly arcane procedural issues, particularly at a time when unemployment and underemployment are ravaging our economy. But the basic premise is simple: namely, Congress has the solemn responsibility and duty to analyze, investigate, debate, and modify public policies that affect the nation and its citizens. To hide behind fast track authority is an abrogation of that responsibility and we the workers will be left to pay the price.
Of course there is also the issue of whether or not we want a multinational corporatocracy, whose singular focus is on profits and competitive wages to shape and shift trade policies that will primarily feed their bottom lines? If we essentially delegate public policy making to the private sector one need seriously question the relevance of representative democracy as it is currently constituted. This, of course, is dangerous territory and I fear that confidence in our system of governance will continue to slip unless our elected representatives reassert their constitutional authority over this process.
So, Congress, you can avoid these pitfalls and attempt to rehabilitate your standing among the populace by denying fast track authority on the TPP and take the opportunity to scrutinize carefully the myriad chapters of this complicated treaty and fix those things that you may not agree with. This is a win-win proposition for you as an institution and for us as citizens.