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Fast Track -- Dead End

 The president, the Republican leadership in Congress, all the major newspapers, the big corporations all wanted Fast Track trade legislation. So what happened and what's it mean for the future?


For much of the mainstream press, last year's surprise defeat of the Clinton administration's Fast Track trade legislation was a simple matter of the President's bungling and labor's political clout. But activists close to the scene saw it as a watershed event reflective of a new unity among a broad spectrum of groups that opens new possibilities for the setting of global trade and investment rules.

Passing Fast Track should have been a slam dunk. After all, the President, the Republican congressional leadership, the Fortune 500, and the editorial pages of every major newspaper in the country had praised the legislation as essential to America's role as a leader in an era of global competition. Despite such powerful backers and eleventh-hour arm twisting by the Clinton administration, supporters could not muster the votes to pass the bill.

Fast Track, more formally known as the “Reciprocal Trade Agreement Authority Act” would have restricted congressional action on international trade agreements over a five-year period to a “yes-no” vote, with no amendments and limited debate. Reauthorizing the President's Fast Track authority was viewed as critical to the administration's plans to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to other countries in Latin America. It was also a first step toward moving through Congress the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, an international pact currently under negotiation intended to expand and protect the rights of corporations investing in foreign countries (see YES! #3, Fall1997).

Many groups concerned about the negative effects of free trade viewed the Fast Track legislation as pivotal. “Once Congress is forced under Fast Track conditions to vote “yes or no” on a trade agreement, it is very hard to defeat,” noted Dan Seligman, trade director for the Sierra Club. “We learned that on NAFTA and GATT. So we knew we had to get there earlier in framing the rules of the debate.”

“In the end, it was the numbers that won,” commented John Cavanagh, of the Institute of Policy Studies, an inveterate campaigner against the excesses of unregulated global trade and investment. “The politicians just didn't dare vote for legislation that their constituencies so overwhelmingly oppose.” Indeed, according to a Business Week poll released last September, Americans are showing record levels of concern: 87 percent believe that trade agreements should protect the environment and 73 percent believe they should lift labor standards in other countries.

A broad coalition opposed Fast Track
While labor was a key player in the Fast Track defeat, the organized opposition extended to religious, human rights, minority, family farm, and small business groups. Environmental organizations, which had been split over NAFTA, held together without a single major group favoring the Fast Track legislation.

Groups that had taken no position on NAFTA signed on to letters demanding environmental and labor protections in any trade legislation. The Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights encouraged its 184 member-organizations to tell Congress to oppose Fast Track. Their letter argued the legislation would “reward corporate mobility, while doing little to ensure the economic well-being of persons of color and women who are displaced by its implementation.” The Conference's director Wade Henderson noted, “We couldn't not oppose this. Our organization has had a major concern with the people affected by welfare reform, many of whom are now low-skill job hunters. Under the free trade rules, it is precisely the low-skill, low-wage jobs that go overseas.”

Religious and international human rights groups also took an organized stance. Coordinated by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 64 groups signed a strongly worded letter to President Clinton demanding that environmental protections and labor rights be made core components of future trade agreements. Signatories ranged from such national organizations as the Washington office of the US Presbyterian Church to such local groups as the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. According to WOLA's Eric Olson, the groups' growing interest in trade agreements has been prompted by the message they are hearing from their constituents around the world; namely that under the current global rules, increases in trade and foreign investment are not helping the poor and in many cases are making them worse off.

The U.S. Business and Industrial Council, comprised of some 1,500 small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, opposed the legislation, citing the fact that only 6 percent of the nation's 690,000 manufacturers export anything at all and urging Congress to “distinguish the special interests of the multinational corporations from the overriding national interest.”

The opposition of two major farm groups representing more than 250,000 farmers revealed the split between the people who actually produce the food and the big traders that profit from exports. The National Family Farm Coalition's letter to Congress noted that NAFTA was “a trading agreement that has benefited agribusiness at the expense of the family farmer.”

Observers credited the Citizens Trade Campaign for a critical role in coordinating the opposition. Headquartered at Public Citizen in Washington, DC, Lori Wallach led a small team who, in the final stretches of the Fast Track legislation, worked up to 20 hours a day to provide allied groups across the political spectrum up-to-date information enabling them to target their actions on key members of Congress.

Opening up the WTO?
The Fast Track defeat has already had important effects. Congressman Richard Gephardt, who led the opposition, plans to introduce a bill that would open up trade negotiations to much greater public scrutiny. The fair trade bill would mandate that environmental and labor standards be included in trade agreements and require an up-front environmental assessment.

Internationally cracks are showing in the secretive processes of the powerful World Trade Organization in Geneva. Trade leaders who watched the Fast Track defeat with alarm are preparing to meet their critics with recommendations for opening the organization's trade dispute processes to public submissions. Current rules bar anyone outside the disputing parties and WTO-appointed trade experts from access even to the facts of a dispute.

Such moves signal opportunities for new strategies for activist groups. According to Seligman “Up to now there has been a tendency to nibble around the edges of these big trade agreements, thinking you can't stop or slow them. Now we know we can stop them – we can demand and win substantive policy change.”

But while many groups can agree that environmental and labor standards should be included in trade agreements, coming up with agreed-upon standards while holding together the coalition of disparate interests that defeated Fast Track remains a major challenge yet ahead.

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