Photo: Council of Canadians

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On Thursday afternoon, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (pictured), a Democrat from Montana, introduced a trade promotion authority (TPA) bill that would give U.S. President Obama the ability to “fast track” trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership through Congress with minimal debate. Voices on the left and right oppose the move but the TPA’s big business supporters believe it is essential to getting the pacific and European deals passed without a bothersome democratic process.

The fast-track bill, which was co-sponsored by Republicans Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Dave Camp (Michigan), would deprive Congress of the opportunity to amend or filibuster trade agreements. It goes further than similar 2002 legislation by giving “marching orders” to U.S. trade officials on issues like the treatment of state-owned enterprises and so-called localization barriers (“buy local” policies), currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, and how Congress should be consulted during the negotiating process.

In most cases the Baucus bill echoes the U.S. government’s current negotiating positions in the TPP and TTIP. It quickly received U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman’s seal of approval.

“I welcome the introduction of the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act,” he said last week. “We expect to have a robust conversation on the Hill about how trade agreements should be negotiated and the role of Congress in that process. We’re eager to engage directly with Members of the Finance and Ways and Means Committees and with all of Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority legislation that has broad, bipartisan support.”

Unfortunately for Froman, as reported by Public Citizen, “With a large bloc of House Democrats and Republicans already having announced opposition to the old Fast Track process at the heart of Camp-Baucus bill, the prospects are limited for the Obama administration to secure passage in the first half of 2014 before lawmakers’ attention turns to midterm elections.”

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch program, says, “Congress’ willingness to support Fast Track has declined markedly because ‘trade’ agreements have increasingly invaded Congress’ domestic policymaking prerogatives.” She points to a letter signed by 151 Democrats in November that calls for a new trade negotiating process that better reflects Congress’ “constitutional authority to set the terms of trade.”

“Democratic and GOP presidents alike have consistently ignored the negotiating objectives included in Fast Track, but the way the process is structured, Congress has given away its authority to do anything about it,” says Wallach.

Many U.S. groups, including Food and Water Watch, Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Citizens Trade Campaign, the Flush the TPP network and others, have been pressuring Members of Congress to reject any new trade promotion authority. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, explained why his union is opposing the Baucus bill:

… 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, which was only the first in a series of trade agreements that have undermined millions of middle-class American jobs and weakened our democratic structures. So it is ironic that this year the supporters of that failed model are bringing forward a fast track trade promotion bill to bring us more of the same: more trade deals that strengthen corporate power and CEO profits, while putting downward pressure on wages and opportunities for the rest of us; more outsourced and offshored jobs and more attacks on domestic health and safety regulations.

America’s workforce deserves better than warmed over trade deals, which will do nothing to raise wages or reduce our $540 billion trade deficit. The United States is long overdue for an overhaul of its trade priorities and trade practices. Rather than focusing on empowering multinational corporations, we should be working to support domestic manufacturing jobs, fix our crumbling infrastructure, and rebuild a strong middle class. This fast track bill will do the opposite.

Democratic Senator Sander Levin (Michigan) said this week he will oppose the Baucus bill and plans competing legislation that gives more room to Congress in shaping trade policy. On January 31, protests across the United States as part of an Intercontinental Day of Action Against the TPP and Corporate Globalization will also target the new fast-track legislation. You can read more about the day of action, and how to plan an event in your community, at the Trade Justice Network website.

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