Slowing the Fast Track Down

There's a big political fight happening in Washington, but for once it does not break down easily along partisan lines. There are free-traders among both the Democrats and the Republicans, and opposition exists on both sides as well. But the main skirmish in this fight is currently happening between President Obama and some of his fellow Democrats. While both sides have valid points to make in this disagreement, I find that both sides are also being a bit disingenuous in their rhetoric and their tactics.

First, the facts. Here's where we are, at the moment. The Obama administration has been hammering out a Pacific Rim trade agreement with many countries in order to open borders and reduce costs to trade around the Pacific Ocean. They have not released a draft of the agreement they have so far negotiated. Drafts have reportedly been available to hundreds of corporate executives in the United States, however, for them to make comments and suggestions. Drafts are provided to Congress, but the text remains "classified," meaning that Congress is not exactly free to comment upon it to the public (lest they be accused of leaking classified information).

Congress will get a chance to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or "T.P.P.") agreement, and the text will become declassified before they do. The public will indeed get a chance to see what's in it before Congress votes on it. But this week Congress is voting on a related bill, which gives the president "fast-track authority" on trade agreements. This is essentially Congress tying its own hands, and giving up some of its legislative power to the executive branch. Fast-track authority is not a new thing -- other presidents have been granted this power by Congresses reaching back to the 1970s -- but the earlier laws have lapsed, meaning Obama does not currently have this power. Fast-track means Congress only gets an up-or-down vote on any trade agreement proposed by the president; they cannot amend it or otherwise change the text of the agreement in any way. They can only accept it or reject it, as is.

Progressive Democrats are currently leading the fight against both the T.P.P. and against giving President Obama fast-track authority. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been the most prominent voice in this debate, so far. Progressives worry that if Obama is granted fast-track authority, it will mean the T.P.P. has enough votes to pass, and they won't have any say in what it contains.

On the other side, President Obama has been pretty dismissive of the complaints, getting downright personal at times in his scathing rejection of the T.P.P. critics. Obama is refusing to make the draft of the agreement public until after the fast-track vote is held, though. By the time the public gets to debate the details, the only options for Congress will be to accept or reject it. Obama, back when he was a candidate running for president, had some very harsh things to say about NAFTA, a free-trade law signed by President Bill Clinton. Now, he assures us, he's gotten a much better deal that solves many of the problems NAFTA had. But all we have, at this point, is his word that this is the case.

Both sides are being disingenuous, though, at least to some degree. Some Progressives are hoping to deny Obama fast-track authority so that they can send the T.P.P. draft through the full congressional legislative process. This means "death by committee," because they know they'll be able to tinker with the details so much that the other countries pull out of the agreement (Congress will, essentially, be negotiating with itself over the agreement, without the input of the other countries involved). By doing so, these Progressives know that they've got a good chance of killing the deal one way or another -- something which may not be possible if Congress only gets an up-or-down vote on a static draft. Some Progressives are saying: "We're for free trade, but it's got to be fair trade (as we define that term)," to try to sound reasonable, but what they are really saying is: "We think we can sabotage the entire effort, because we're against these deals on principle."

President Obama, however, is also being disingenuous. He keeps trying to convince the media (and wavering Democrats in Congress) that all the criticism over the T.P.P. draft language is completely unfounded and not based in the reality of what the text says. Obama has also been using a strawman argument, since he's attempting to paint all critics of the draft as being "anti-free-traders." In some cases, this label might actually apply, but not in every case. There are Democrats who genuinely do want to reach a trade agreement, but also want their specific concerns addressed before the draft language is set in stone. But the real disingenuousness from Obama is that he's making a case which cannot currently be accurately verified, by either the press or the public. The draft is still classified, so the public has no idea what it actually says. This makes it tough for Obama to address specific critiques, but then it's always tough trying to sell a pig in a poke. Instead of actually addressing the specifics, Obama is left questioning the motives and politics of his critics.

Both sides have a point, though. There is an excellent reason why the executive branch conducts international negotiations of this type. The reason is that it is downright impossible for other countries to negotiate with 535 members of Congress. We'd never get any international deals if every little committee in Congress got their own chance to monkey with the language. We can barely get domestic business done in Congress, after all, without occasional government shutdowns. This is precisely the reason fast-track authority was created in the first place. Past Congresses knew they'd just screw up any negotiations, so they handed all the negotiating power over to the White House.

Progressives, though, have an even stronger point of their own. The whole secrecy blanket that's been thrown over the T.P.P. process is insulting to the public. How, after all, can a document of this type be "classified material" when hundreds of corporate executives have already gotten the chance to read it and offer changes? This not just stretches the definition of "classified" beyond recognition, it also makes a complete mockery of the democratic process. Big Business gets to weigh in, but the public doesn't even get to read the text? If anyone can explain why this isn't just naked oligarchy (or plutocracy), I'm all ears. People speak of billionaires buying politicians and buying elections, but this is even worse -- because it represents nothing short of multinational corporations writing the laws themselves, in secret.

President Obama could have handled this differently, of course. He could have been making the case for what is in the T.P.P. directly to the public. His administration could have could have launched a media blitz to explain all the details in the best light possible, in an effort to lobby both the public and Congress on the virtues of the deal. They didn't. If they had, Progressives could have made their case for strengthening certain provisions in the deal while it was still actively being negotiated. The administration's negotiators could have gone back to the bargaining table and told the other countries "this is unacceptable to our Congress, therefore if this remains in the deal we will not agree to it." But this was not done, so this opportunity may have been lost.

One has to wonder what, exactly, they're keeping so secret. What are we going to find out about the deal after the fast-track vote in Congress? What odious little clauses, oversights, and loopholes will be revealed? We have no way of knowing, as things stand. The White House is saying "trust us," but it refuses to reveal concrete details.

Much of the attention in this fight is on the T.P.P. agreement itself, but the fast-track authority will outlive this one agreement. Whether the T.P.P. is ultimately agreed to or not by this Congress, the fast-track bill is actually the more important of the two, since it will outlast even President Obama's term in office. This means the Progressives are right in trying to derail the fast-track bill right now. Whatever their motivations (whether they're against all free trade agreements, or whether they're just concerned over this particular one), if Congress refuses to agree to fast-track authority this week then Obama will have little choice but to make the T.P.P. draft public before he can expect to gain the fast-track authority he may need to get it passed.

This doesn't necessarily mean the death of the whole deal, though. Congressional leaders from both parties could agree to hold a future vote on fast-track before they vote on the T.P.P. itself. This would avoid the death-of-a-thousand-cuts in committees that could kill the T.P.P. altogether, but this way the vote on fast-track could be taken after the public knows what is in the deal on the table. If the deal truly is better than NAFTA and past trade agreements, as President Obama maintains, then it should prove to be popular among both the public and Congress. The public is going to find out the details in any case, before the final T.P.P. vote in Congress, but there's no valid (or believable) reason to refuse to let this happen before fast-track authority is granted.

The fast-track bill may fail to gain the 60 votes it'll need in the Senate this week, and it could have a rough ride in the House as well. There's really no absolute reason Obama shouldn't be granted fast-track power, since many other presidents have been given such authority in the past. But that's just the general case. Voting for fast-track right now is, obviously, coupled to a very specific deal. Congress should refuse to do so before the T.P.P. draft is made public.

Giving a president fast-track authority means Congress is giving up a little of its own power. Because there is a deal on the table right now, Congress would be entirely justified in refusing to grant Obama this power until that deal is made public. Congress can always revisit the subject after the details are known by all, and hold another vote on fast-track authority before the final T.P.P. vote. By doing so, the public will be able to participate in the debate, and both sides will have ample opportunity to make their cases. Elizabeth Warren will be able to adequately cite exactly what she's opposed to, and President Obama will be able to refute her by citing the exact language in question as well. There will be no "just trust us" argument to be made, at that point. This is all the Progressives are really arguing for, at this point, and it's an eminently reasonable argument. By insisting on keeping the details from the public until after fast-track authority is granted, the White House wants to make it impossible for any changes to be made before the final vote. Progressives are arguing for complete transparency on the deal before fast-track authority is granted. To me, the Progressives have the stronger argument right now. The text of the deal can't be kept secret forever, and at this point there doesn't seem to be any reason for the public to wait any longer to see what's in it.


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