Trade debate carries risks for workers

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News · July, 2001

[This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, July 2, 2001, p. 15-A.]

Conservatives usually are the most strident defenders of the doctrine of original intent, the idea that we should follow the will of the Founding Fathers in interpreting the Constitution.

But in a strange twist on that idea, Republicans now are warning us that the Constitution has “tied the hands” of the president in trade negotiations.

The problem, it seems, is that the Constitution states in Article I, Section 8 that “Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce with foreign nations.”

The original intent seems pretty clear to me: Congress should regulate international commerce.

More likely, the “problem” for conservatives is that Congress sometimes is more prone to public pressure than is the executive branch. That is, citizens who organize to pursue their interests have a better chance of influencing the House and Senate than they do when the whole show is run out of the White House.

As a result, congressional participation in regulating commerce with foreign nations can make it more difficult for corporations to ram through the kinds of trade deals that help them line their pockets at the expense of those citizens. The solution to that occasional excess of democracy? For the Bush administration and Republicans in the House, the answer is fast-track legislation.

Well, it used to be called fast track, until the Bush spinmeisters realized the term makes it sound as if the rich and powerful might be trying to pull a fast one on U.S. citizens, which, of course, they are. So the concept has been renamed “trade promotion authority,” and congressional Republicans are gearing up to push the legislation through before they head off for vacation in August.

Fast-track authority made it easier for the first Bush administration to negotiate, and the Clinton administration to pass, the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement. But fast-track authority expired in 1994, and the most recent attempt to bring it back was defeated in the House in 1998. But fast track is back again, and the Republicans are talking about a bipartisan coalition to push it through.

Under fast track, members of Congress would be abandoning their duty instead of taking their rightful role in regulating international commerce. The proposed law allows the president to bring trade agreements he negotiates before Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments and with limited debate.

If reinstated, fast track will make it easier for the Bush administration to ram through a version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas – a hemispheric NAFTA – that will increase the power of corporations and marginalize the interests of labor organizers, human-rights activists and environmentalists.

During the upcoming debate, expect to hear the usual distortions from President Bush. He already has said fast track is necessary so that he can avoid a trade agreement that has “codicils on it that frighten people from trading with us.”

Of course, Mr. Bush knows full well that “people” aren’t frightened by agreements that protect workers’ rights, human rights and the environment. Rather, it is corporations that are frightened by such protections. They are afraid of losing their ability to rake in massive profits off the vulnerable economies and peoples of the developing world.