At midnight on June 30, President Bush's "Fast Track Trade Authority" expired.
Fast Track allowed the President to submit trade deals to Congress for a simple up or down vote — no amendments allowed — thus simplifying the negotiating process. It has been around since the mid-1970s, with a few periods of hiatus. Trade boosters like Fast Track because it prevents treaties from being significantly changed in the Senate, something that can mess up the deals struck during trade negotiations. Fast Track opponents, like Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, call it undemocratic, something that takes away Congress's constitutionally mandated treaty powers. Global Trade Watch was so excited to see it expire that they wrote an obituary.
Before the authority expired, trade negotiators were able to sign a new trade agreement with South Korea. Although the deal with South Korea reduces many tariffs, certain types of U.S. beef will not be allowed into South Korea because of concerns about mad cow disease (note to the USDA: if mad cow testing was mandatory, South Korea probably wouldn't have this concern).
Improperly written trade agreements could pose a risk to a safe food supply, sustainable agriculture, and a clean environment. Consider the recent deal between key Democrats and the White House on potential trade agreements with Peru, Panama, and Colombia. Global Trade Watch argues that the deal ”does absolutely nothing to address limits on imported food safety and inspection. Even as we face a crisis over the safety of imported food,the FTAs ("free" trade agreements) contain language that requires us to accept imports of meat that does not meet our safety standards."
Outside of the food safety realm, one could envision a situation where one of the agreement signatories considers that "buy local food" provisions are trade barriers that violate the agreement. Or a formal complaint over a municipality's or university's plan to buy only USDA organically certified food for their cafeterias, because another country sees the organic regulations as trade barriers. It's not inconceivable: just a few years ago, a Canadian company filed a $1 billion suit in a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tribunal after California banned the gasoline additive MTBE, which has polluted groundwater across the continent. The Canadian company argued (unsuccessfully) that since the only realistic replacement was ethanol — which is produced primarily in the U.S. — the ban on MTBE constituted an unfair trade practice.
The trade agreement negotiations in Washington certainly bear watching. Although it seems inconceivable that a Democratic Congress would renew President Bush's Fast Track authority, there are plenty of Democratic members of Congress who care far more about the profits of multinational corporations than the needs of the people, and only a small number are required to join with the Republicans in each house to approve an agreement.
This post was stimulated by an interview on last week's Bill Moyers Journal. Bill Moyers talked about trade with Lori Wallach, an attorney at Global Trade Watch. Video and a transcript are available at the show's website. (It's great to see Bill Moyers back on television: his programs are always among the smartest offered by any network.)
Finally, a little rant on language: none of my references to trade agreements used the phrase "free trade agreement." Journalists and politicians almost invariably use the term, regardless of the actual terms of the agreement. In the article about the South Korean deal , for example, the headline is "U.S. and South Korea sign free-trade accord." But the agreement only removes tariffs "on nearly 95 percent" of goods and leaves in place many structural impediments to trade (most notably on automobiles, and probably intellectual property). That might be "freer trade," but it's not "free trade." In addition, by putting the word "free" in front of trade, the issue is framed such that opponents of the agreement are put on the defensive. What kind of person is against freedom? Terrorist and communists, that's who. Would it be too much effort for journalists to use a more honest and neutral headline like "U.S. signs trade accord with South Korea"?