Common Cause Urges Speed Limit on Fast Track Trade Plan

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  • Dale Eisman
Citizen Advocates Want 'Openness, Deliberation, Transparency, Accountability' as Lawmakers Consider Milestone Agreement

Common Cause called on Congress today to adopt a more transparent, balanced, citizen-friendly review process and impose a speed limit on the “fast track” the Obama administration is seeking for action on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest trade deal in U.S. history.

In a “Statement of Principles” unanimously adopted by its National Governing Board, the nonpartisan citizen advocacy organization notes that “aside from authorized expert advisors and government officials, no one has seen the full text” of the proposed 12-nation trade deal. “This raises legitimate questions about the fairness of the negotiations, the processes by which Congress will approve or reject the agreement, the ability of citizens to submit their views and the ultimate impact of the TPP on people’s lives,” the statement asserts.

The TPP would impact 40 percent of the global economy; its 12 participants include the U.S. and Japan, two of the world’s three leading economic powers.

Because the negotiations have been so shrouded, Congress should adopt special procedures when it finally considers the deal, Common Cause said. The Fast Track legislation should include “procedural safeguards” that “embrace fully the principles of openness, deliberation, transparency, accountability and access for the wide range of diverse views inherent in and necessary to the democratic legislative process,” the statement argues.

“The administration’s Fast Track proposal would require Congress to expedite consideration of the Trans Pacific deal,” said Common Cause President Miles Rapoport. “Debate would be limited and members would surrender their right to propose and debate amendments. Congress should set a high bar for approval of such major departures from time-tested legislative processes, permitting them only when it is fully satisfied that the President will adhere to congressionally-approved trade objectives and that the public will have ample opportunity to review and comment on the agreement before any final vote.

“This is particularly important because the agreement is being negotiated in secret, with private, multinational interests well-represented in trade advisory committees but apparently without significant balance from members of Congress, human rights organizations, organized labor or environmental groups,” he added.

Fast Track (also known as Trade Promotion Authority) procedures have been used in various forms to expedite congressional consideration of past trade deals. Their supporters argue that it would be impossible to reach any trade agreement if the legislative body of every country involved had the ability to amend the deal. 

“Fast track is a powerful tool, which when used responsibly can facilitate the approval of trade agreements which benefit the economy – here in America and around the world,” Rapoport said. “But there is considerable evidence that trade agreements also can be damaging, increasing unemployment, widening income disparities and damaging the environment. These risks make it all the more important that Congress take time to thoroughly and openly consider Fast Track and the TPP and all its ramifications.”

Common Cause’s proposed principles for Fast Track include:

  • A reasonable period for citizens to review and comment on the Fast Track provisions that will be in place when Congress formally reviews the trade agreement.
  • A similar citizen review period for the TPP deal itself, with ample opportunity for all interested parties to comment on its impact on investments by large and small U.S. businesses, employment and labor practices, worker wages and dislocation, consumer product prices and health, safety and environmental regulations.
  • A set of trade objectives for Congress to apply when it considers the final TPP agreement, and a provision for consultation between Congress and the executive branch so that Congress can be ensured that those objectives are being met.
  • Thorough and transparent review by Congress of how the TPP will affect smaller nations, indigenous populations, and others against predation and widening economic inequality
  • A provision for congressional hearings on different sections of the agreement and sufficient time for floor debate for all representative views to be heard.
  • Full disclosure of the names and affiliations of all “expert” advisors to and participants in the negotiation with access to drafts of the agreement

The Common Cause statement also urges lawmakers to give special, separate consideration to one part of the emerging trade deal, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism (ISDS). Under ISDS, a foreign private investor can seek damages from the U.S. over any new U.S. law or regulation the investor believes has unfairly or discriminatorily interfered with its reasonable expectation of profits it would realize under the trade agreement. Americans investing abroad would have a corresponding ability to file claims against foreign governments. Claims would be decided by a three-member international arbitration panel.

Common Cause said ISDS appears to give foreign investors a remedy against the U.S. and its taxpayers that is not provided for American citizens and corporations. The arbitration panel can potentially award monetary damages amounting to billions of dollars.

ISDS should get a separate, up-or-down vote, Common Cause said, and Congress “must critically review ISDS procedures to ensure that they protect sufficiently the commercial, health, safety and environmental interests of all affected parties, including local businesses. Congress also should consider allowing non-investors to contribute their views in ISDS arbitration proceedings and should weigh whether ISDS “can be abused by powerful investors,” permitting them to file “mega” complaints against small nations and pressure those countries “into concessions they might otherwise not be willing to make,” the statement adds.

“The TPP clearly has enormous implications for America and the world economy,” Rapoport said. “But like pretty much everyone else, we haven’t seen the actual agreement and so have no way of predicting its exact impact. Common Cause has long advocated for the importance of adherence to the core principles of American democracy, including those that require full, fair, and open debate in the consideration of both legislation and international agreements.

“Our government is grounded in a system of checks and balances and we should not short-circuit – or in this case fast track – it lightly.”