The 1% Side Step Democracy with Fast Track for the TPP

From the March/April 2015 PNL #841

by Brian Escobar

Sometime this spring, Congress will vote on whether to grant Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, known as Fast Track) to the President for the next four years. With TPA, Obama and the US trade representative can negotiate trade agreements and require Congress to circumvent its ordinary rules, by requiring a “yes” or “no” floor vote on an agreement without the possibility of amendment, within twenty hours of debate. TPA was used to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other controversial trade pacts but it expired in 2007 and wasn’t renewed. If passed, TPA would apply to multiple trade agreements currently being negotiated, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The second half of the 20th century saw trade negotiations take a new role, that of completing the centuries-long expansion of capitalism to every corner of the world. They were central to reshaping the world order and the economic structure of the US. But the question, “Is this a good direction?” was never debated publicly or an issue in a major US election. Fast Track is the most recent way to exclude such questions.

Historically US trade agreements dealt with raising or lowering tariffs and quotas – barriers to the movements of products over borders – and Congress granted the executive branch authority to negotiate them. Trade agreements being negotiated today cover many more areas of society – extending copyrights and patents, changing Internet and medical laws as well as environmental and energy policy, and eliminating or protecting agriculture subsidies. Laws that would not pass otherwise, like 2012’s unpopular SOPA legislation restricting Internet freedoms, are inserted into these massive Trojan horses, under the guise of trade. “Trojan horse” is an apt metaphor for another reason – while the US Trade Representative promises job gains, with Fast Track the actual text of these agreements is kept secret from all but 600 industry representatives and a few select members of Congress who participate in the negotiations until the final text is agreed upon and up for vote in Congress. Fortunately, in the case of the TPP, Wikileaks and some legislators leaked versions of the text and we know some of what it could contain.

We think of trade as the movement of products, but the “trade agreements” of today are actually more about protecting transnational investors. No provision from recent trade agreements exemplifies this better than Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), a key part of both NAFTA and the leaked TPP text. ISDS allows a foreign investor to sue a government for loss of prospective profits resulting from regulations enacted by a government, even municipal governments. The suit is brought before an extra-territorial tribunal of judges, the investor and the state each selecting half. Under NAFTA, ISDS has allowed a slippery Delaware-registered, Calgary-based company to sue the Province of Quebec for $241 million in prospective losses from Quebec’s fracking moratorium. The company, Lone Pine, had not even started fracking under the St. Lawrence Seaway but based their claim on their own estimates of massive reserves of natural gas. The case is pending, but environmentalists fear a chilling effect on future regulations. ISDS puts environmental and health regulations at risk to protect investments.

Trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP are key weapons of imperialism. This imperialism is less the dominance of one country over other countries but rather the ability of the tiny upper class in a few countries to shape, mostly through bureaucratic and market means, the destiny of the lower classes of the world. These agreements give protection to global investors at the expense of security for workers. Past US presidents have claimed agreements like NAFTA would create hundreds of thousands of jobs but the actual numbers always fall short. Job losses are the real result and new jobs created are precarious Walmart-type jobs. When operations and investments can be moved around the world quickly, workers are put into a worse bargaining position, both individually and collectively. It’s no surprise economic inequality increased under NAFTA. If passed, the TPP will only intensify this pattern. Organized labor, human rights groups, Internet freedom advocates, consumer groups and environmentalists all oppose agreements like the TPP. Those pushing these agreements are trying to circumvent democratic process through Fast Track, which makes real debate and public input exceedingly difficult.

We must stop Fast Track. Our opposition has prevented it from being renewed for the past seven years. We’ve defeated trade agreements before. We can do it again. And should Fast Track pass, we’ll need to continue to work to defeat the TPP and similar agreements.

Learn more about the TPP, Fast Track and how to take action, at

Brian is an activist and aspiring game designer from Liverpool, NY. He studied anthropology at Binghamton University and is particularly interested in economics.