WASHINGTON — When the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed 20 years ago, there were many promises of how it would create jobs for U.S. workers, strengthen our trade and lower prices for consumers.
Unfortunately, those promises have not come to pass, but some of our worst fears have. In Maine, it has severely weakened manufacturing and has led to the loss of thousands of good-paying jobs. And across the country it has contributed to growing income inequality.
After all that, our country still imports more than we export by about $40 billion. With NAFTA’s track record, it’s clear that we need to give trade agreements the utmost review and careful consideration before entering into them, if we do so at all. That’s why I have become so worried with recent proposals to fast-track two of these agreements through Congress.
The president’s trade representative is currently negotiating two very broad and complicated trade agreements, with Asian-Pacific countries and European Union members, respectively, all with little consultation with Congress and no public disclosure.
I am deeply worried about losing the opportunity to review and consider important nontrade policy provisions that are included in these agreements, since the administration will ask for congressional approval of legal authority to “fast-track” these agreements through the ordinary legislative process.
Under the Constitution, Congress has the exclusive authority to set the terms of trade. Starting in 1974, Congress gave that authority to the executive branch by enacting trade promotion authority, also known as “fast track.” Fast track authority allows the executive branch to negotiate trade agreements on its own, without congressional input or oversight.
Once an agreement has been finalized, it also greatly curtails the normal legislative process in order to expedite congressional approval of the agreement. The deal is put on a “fast track” and provided only a limited amount of time for consideration in the committees of jurisdiction before it is automatically discharged to the floor where debate is limited and we have no ability to amend it.
If these agreements stuck to simply removing taxes on foreign goods, or tariffs, fast track authority would make sense. But, as we saw with NAFTA, modern free trade agreements involve much more than the removal of tariffs.
Modern free trade agreements aim at removing what are called “nontariff barriers” in member countries. That category includes a wide swath of laws and regulations affecting many parts of the economy – from labor and agriculture to natural resources and the environment. In the past, these agreements have resulted in a race to the bottom on rules for workers, consumers and the environment.
The two agreements currently in negotiation include chapters on all of those nontrade policies and more.
Negotiations on the European agreement, known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are just beginning, and it promises to be the largest trade agreement in history. Negotiations on the Asian agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, are in their final stages.
Unfortunately, it seems that these agreements will continue the practices of the past.
The administration’s existing fast track authority expired in 2007. Anticipating the introduction of legislation re-authorizing fast track authority, in October, I joined more than 150 House Democrats in sending a letter to the administration asking that Congress be fully engaged in the final approval process of these agreements.
“Twentieth Century ‘Fast Track’ is simply not appropriate for 21st Century agreements and must be replaced. The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past,” we wrote. “We can and must do better.”
I place great value on policies to expand foreign markets for U.S. goods, but strongly believe that Congress should retain its constitutional authority to weigh the policy issues contained in these agreements.
I’ve been a longtime supporter of policies and programs, like the Maine International Trade Center and the U.S. Export-Import Bank, that promote access to foreign markets for Maine companies in order to increase exports from our state and positively affect our trade balance.
However, if the TPP and TTIP trade agreements are going to get expedited consideration, it should come only after Congress has been meaningfully consulted, and after Congress, not the administration, has verified that legal protections for the environment, consumers and workers (to name a few) will not be compromised.
— Special to the Press Herald