Here are four key facts to know about the "fast-track authority" that President Barack Obama is seeking as a way to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade deal that involves 12 nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.
What 'Fast Track' Means
"Fast track" is the term that describes legislation now under consideration in Congress that would allow Obama to implement international trade pacts with far less congressional input than normal. In practice, it would drastically reduce the capacity of Congress to amend trade agreements -- something that Congress has the power to do in almost every other circumstance. If Congress decides to approve the fast-track bill, it “would delegate away Congress’ constitutional trade authority,” analysts at Public Citizen, a watchdog group leading the fight against the fast-track bill, wrote.
What The Bill Proposes
The fast-track bill empowers secretive international tribunals at the expense of federal and state courts. The TPP would, among other things, establish extrajudicial tribunals with the power to override domestic court decisions. The tribunals are known in trade parlance as “investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS), and have been criticized by, among others, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The proposed fast-track legislation specifically mandates U.S. negotiators to include ISDS tribunals in the final text of the TPP. Advocates argue that the tribunals help to reduce trade barriers and facilitate international commerce. Critics say that the tribunals empower multinational corporations and investors at the expense of national governments.
"Democratic decision-making is forcefully going under the knife through international arbitration. The accused states have only two options: either they can be like others and take back the decisions they have made, or they can pay huge sums in compensation to the investor,” Ska Keller, a member of the European Parliament, said.
One of the recent uses of the international tribunal process happened in 2010 when tobacco company Philip Morris sued Uruguay for the health warnings the country mandated on cigarette packs. That lawsuit is still ongoing.
The push for fast-track legislation comes as concerns about transparency in trade deals reach a fever pitch. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in January that the fast-track bill "puts Congress in the driver’s seat to define our negotiating objectives and strengthens congressional oversight." But unlike past free trade agreements, only a handful of congressional staffers on key committees have access to the full text of the TPP. Rank-and-file members of Congress have very limited access to the TPP, being able to take only limited notes and having to schedule in advance an opportunity to view the text. Many members of Congress have been up in arms about the lack of transparency, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the lead sponsors of the fast-track legislation. Wyden has criticized the administration for a lack of transparency, particularly around intellectual property issues.
The language in the fast-track bill also directs the U.S. trade representative to pursue protections for "trade secrets" in the TPP. But that language is concerning, the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes. There are "cases in which there may be an important public interest in the disclosure of such trade secrets, such as where they reveal past misdeeds, or throw transparency onto the activities of corporations executing public functions," the group wrote in a blog post.
Food Safety Concerns
The fast-track bill includes language limiting high standards for food safety. The fast-track bill includes language that mandates the U.S. trade representative to seek to ban “unjustified sanitary or phytosanitary restrictions” as part of agricultural regulation in the TPP. Rather than encouraging countries with lower food standards to raise them, the fast-track bill aims to curb overly broad food safety regulations. In particular, this could undercut regulations on hormone treatments to animals, or the use of pesticides.
Food & Water Watch, a nongovernmental organization, was highly critical of the fast-track bill's recommendations for TPP. “Fast Track requires the United States to approve the food safety systems of exporting countries even when domestic oversight is stronger,” the group said Sunday in a news release. “This forced 'equivalence' of foreign food safety systems can expose consumers to imported food-borne hazards, and it is how the U.S. imported 2.5 million pounds of E. coli-tainted ground beef from a Canadian plant that replaced most of its government safety inspectors with its own employees.”