Congress One Step Closer To Granting Fast-Track Authority For Passing Mysterious Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty

Global trade deals are kind of arcane stuff. Diplomats spend years or decades negotiating them, in an endless series of meetings around the world. Not only do all the i’s need to be dotted and t’s crossed, but every a, an, and, if, then, and but needs to be reviewed, revised, discussed, and agreed upon ten times over. It’s a laborious process.

You might think, with something so detailed, specific, and important, that the authors would want as many eyes on it as possible — but you would think wrong. Trade negotiations are 100% secret. They happen behind doors so closed that even Congress doesn’t get to read the document they’re eventually supposed to sign off on.

Here’s how the U.S. enters into trade agreements:

  1. The United States Trade Representative, who reports up to the President, negotiates the agreement with other nations.
  2. The Senate votes on the completed treaty. 67 senators — a ⅔ majority — have to approve it.
  3. The President ratifies (signs) the approved trade agreement.
  4. The agreement becomes national and international law.

There’s also something called fast-tracking, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a short-cut through the approval process. If Congress grants the President fast-track authority, that means the fully-negotiated, finished treaty goes straight to the Senate for a vote: no amendments, no filibusters, no changes or negotiations. It’s a wholesale yes/no, binary option.

Fast-track authority has more or less been the default since 1974, with a series of bills extending it. The most recent was in 2002 but expired in 2007 and has not been renewed since. And that’s where today’s conflict comes in.

The White House is asking Congress to pass another bill granting fast-track authority. At stake is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous, sprawling, high-stakes Pacific Rim agreement spanning everything from agriculture to healthcare to copyright law.

At least, we think that’s what it spans. Because negotiations are so secret — despite pleas from advocacy groups and politicians — nobody’s 100% sure what the TPP actually encompasses. A few draft segments hit WikiLeaks a year back, and outside of that it remains a locked-door mystery.


The reauthorization bills in the House and Senate are creating strange sets of political bedfellows to say the least, in the current hyper-partisan environment. Republican committee heads in both the House and Senate are moving to get the bills through committee quickly. The New York Times reports this week that lawmakers have agreed on a version of the authorization bill that would give the President fast-track authority — but in slow-motion. As the NYT explains:

The president would have to notify Congress of the accord’s completion 90 days before he intends to sign it, a delay similar to past requirements. But in a new twist, the full agreement would have to be made public for 60 days before the president gives his final assent and sends it to Congress. Congress could not begin considering it for 30 days after that.

The oxymoron of slow-motion fast-tracking means that Congress would have a period of time to review the negotiated treaty before signing off on it… and that the delay period would carry the process of authorizing the TPP straight through the 2016 election season and into a new administration.

However, the White House is facing significant push-back on the attempt to get fast-track authorization moving… from members of the same party. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has become particularly outspoken on the issue, saying this week in a blog post: “We’ve all seen the tricks and traps that corporations hide in the fine print of contracts. We’ve all seen the provisions they slip into legislation to rig the game in their favor. Now just imagine what they have done working behind closed doors with TPP.” She also created a petition for anyone leery of the TPP to sign on to.

Is the TPP terrible? We don’t know. Maybe it promises unicorns and candy to every child int he 12 signatory nations, and free iPhones for all. But that seems pretty dang unlikely. More probably, it promises corporate loopholes and concessions that benefit a very few shareholders at the expense of many ordinary citizens. If the leaked IP chapters are anything to go on, it also stands to make a very bad copyright situation even worse.

But as long as it’s in the dark, nobody really knows.

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