In school, we were taught that participation in class is a good thing. The more voices involved in a discussion ensured that a diversity of opinions were heard and considered.
Unfortunately, the way our government negotiates free-trade agreements encourages just the opposite. In fact, it’s a one-way conversation. Under fast-track trade negotiating authority, the administration negotiates deals and submits them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Members of Congress do not have the option of amending these trade deals to improve them.
To the relief of many, fast-track authority expired in June. But the deals already negotiated under fast-track — Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea — are still in the Congressional pipeline. The administration simply needs to submit them to force an up-or-down vote.
Procedurally, this is extremely problematic. It gags the voice of the people when it comes to formulating our nation’s trade policy. Authorizing the executive to negotiate trade deals for our country is one thing, but effectively cutting out Congress’ input abdicates our fundamental responsibility to represent our constituents’ voices by debating and participating in policymaking. Our civics teachers would be disappointed in us.
And while the procedure under which we’ve considered FTAs is troubling, so too are the basic models used to formulate them. The pending deals negotiated under fast-track basically are carbon copies of the North American Free Trade Agreement-Central American Free Trade Agreement model. Improved labor and environmental standards were added, but they were added on top of the same old NAFTA-CAFTA text.
Key unions are worried about the labor provisions in the pending FTAs because they require countries to adopt, maintain and enforce only the terms of the International Labor Organization Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, a nonbinding statement. The new FTA language does not require signatories to meet ILO conventions — the binding standards. It’s highly likely the changes to the environment and labor provisions will have no real effect on the ground.
At the very least, the pending FTAs deserve formal committee hearings so that a diversity of viewpoints on the new language can be sufficiently heard by members of the Committee. This is especially true of Peru. The last hearing on the Peru FTA was in 2006 — well before the deal between the White House and congressional leaders was struck in May.
Unfortunately a full hearing was not completed. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee completed an informal consideration of the Peru FTA.
The whole markup took only a few minutes — only four of the committee’s 41 members spoke. No amendments were allowed and no testimony was taken. No analysis was given or opposition noted. Nothing happened. This either represents a rubber stamp of approval for the Peru FTA or an utter frustration with a process that allows no meaningful input. Either way, it was unremarkable.
I appreciate that Congressional leaders were able to gain some language changes in our pending FTAs, but I view them as inadequate. It is long past time that we move away from the NAFTA-CAFTA model altogether. We must eliminate provisions that have caused downward pressure on wages, the exportation of good U.S. jobs, the importation of unsafe products and food, and the displacement of huge numbers of peasant farmers in our trade partner countries. We also must enhance trade adjustment assistance programs and revise the role of Congress in our nation’s trade policymaking.
Our constituencies back home are sick and tired of watching trade agreements cripple their industries and eliminate their good paying jobs. It’s time for this Congress to step up and demand to have a say in what goes into these deals. It is time for us to live up to our commitment to the hardworking families in our country. “Mock” markups are not going to do it. Changing our focus to what is good for American workers will.
Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) is co-founder and co-chairman of the House Trade Working Group.