The "fast track" trade bill introduced last week by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has a number of problems. It sets aside Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution and essentially pre-approves the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before the public and most of Congress even sees it. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does not specify firm and sufficient objectives to make TPP a trade bill that could work for 99 percent of Americans.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, on Thursday offered an alternative, the Right Track for TPP Act of 2015. (Summary here, full text here.) This bill is a fast track process for doing trade right — or at least for modifying the secretly negotiated TPP so it can be somewhat palatable to more of us than just the 1 percent.
Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Committee's chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ruled the substitute measure "out of order," reported The Huffington Post.
What the Levin Alternative Would Have Done
According to Levin, these are some of the problems with the current fast track bill in the Senate:
(1) It has "general and vague negotiating objectives" that are nearly identical to last year's bill and does not provide congressional guidance on completing the negotiations in a way that can get bipartisan support.
(2) It leaves it up to the President, not Congress, to determine whether the agreement achieves the objectives spelled out in the bill.
(3) Even though TPP is in its "end game," the bill leaves it to the president to "develop guidelines on how to properly consult with Congress."
(4) The bill doesn't have a "meaningful" way for Congress to remove fast track.
"In short, the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA bill (House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan helped write the bill) puts Congress in the back seat and greases the skids for an up-or-down vote after the fact."
To fix this, Levin's "right track" bill (according to a summary):
(1) Includes specific negotiating instructions on all of the major outstanding issues in the TPP negotiations;
(2) Does not provide for expedited consideration unless and until bipartisan groups of
House and Senate trade advisors determine that the instructions were followed;
(3) Has Congress write the consultation procedures, including what negotiating texts must be shared with Congress and stakeholders; and
(4) Includes two useable mechanisms to enable Congress to remove expedited consideration where necessary.
Some of the specific instructions include a requirement that TPP:
● Currency: "Must include strong and enforceable currency manipulation provisions" – "and spells out what an “enforceable” provision looks like."
● Labor: "Describes what needs to be done to bring Vietnam, Mexico, and other countries into compliance with international labor standards (as reflected in the May 10 Agreement) and to help ensure compliance after the TPP agreement enters into force. It also requires that the changes needed to bring our trading partners into compliance occur before Congress votes."
● Environment: "Instructs the President to ensure a level of environmental protection at least as high as the level provided under the May 10 Agreement. It also recognizes the need to replace weak commitments with strong ones, such as “prohibiting” imports of illegally harvested wildlife products."
Pelosi Endorsed Path To Yes
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed the Levin bill, calling it a "path to yes." Some are saying this is an effort to defeat fast track, but the Levin bill would have been a much better approach that would be acceptable to many.
The AFL-CIO had backed the right track alternative, saying in a letter to Congress that it "represents a strong improvement over traditional Fast Track legislation. It limits trade promotion authority only to the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) and provides mandatory oversight and instructions from Congress, as opposed to the unenforceable and aspirational objectives in Fast Track. "
This is an approach Democrats could have unified around. Democrats have been torn between supporting the fast track process, or going against President Obama. This bill provides a way for them to support the President on trade, while showing that there can be a path to doing trade right.
The President wants fast-track trade promotion authority. He says that he is negotiating a trade bill that is "progressive" and will help labor and the environment. This bill would have been a path to doing at least some of that. The Wyden/Hatch bill is not.
Trade Done Right
The Levin bill was not fully a path to trade done right. Even if the bill's objectives were fully met in TPP, that does not make TPP a particularly good trade bill for people who work for a living, the environment, consumers and other "stakeholders. But it does demand that TPP be less destructive to the interests of non-corporate stakeholders than what is known about the current state of the secret agreement, and than what the Senate Hatch/Wyden bill politely but not enforceably requests of it. (And enforced currency rules would bring back millions of jobs.)
To do trade right requires a complete change in process and priority. Trade can work for all stakeholders and can be a tool to lift general prosperity, democracy, environmental protection and the general welfare on all sides of trade borders. But to do that would require beginning with a process that has those stakeholders at the table, with those issues as the objectives of the negotiations.