Fast-track faces a challenge

Fast-track faces a challenge

Whoever wins the White House in November will have to ask Congress next year for the continued fast-track authority to negotiate free-trade agreements that can be voted up or down but not amended by the House and Senate.

And when the president does, there will be plenty of lawmakers who are going to say no.

The Bush administration negotiated the Australia, Morocco and Central American FTAs under fast-track, or trade promotion authority. To retain that authority for an additional two years, the president must obtain an extension. Congress can then take an up-or-down vote on a resolution of disapproval. If either chamber approves the resolution, the trade promotion authority no longer applies.

When Congress granted the president the authority to negotiate tariff and non-tariff trade agreements, it was done so under the condition that the president consult frequently with lawmakers. Several Democrats in both chambers have complained about a lack of consultation.

"I don't think there's been adequate back-and-forth," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Ill, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee. "The Congressional Oversight Group has not been an effective mechanism."

That criticism was most vocal in the Senate, when the Finance Committee had its first formal opportunity to review the proposed enacting legislation for the Australia agreement. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., successfully offered an amendment to the proposal that would have required congressional approval if the U.S. Trade Representative wanted to waive future beef-import quotas.

The amendment complicated a congressional review process that was already somewhat convoluted; the Conrad amendment carried little more weight than a recommendation. In the end, the administration rejected it.

Conrad was furious. "I remind my colleagues that the fast-track process is up for renewal next year. To the extent that it becomes clear to colleagues that the consultation promised in the fast-track process is a sham, a snare and a dilution, it will become infinitely more difficult to extend fast-track," Conrad told the Senate on July 15 during debate on the Australia FTA. "Who is going to want to give up their right to amend, who is going to want to give up their right to extended debate, if there is no right to serious consultation by the committees of jurisdiction; if it is all just a game and there is no meaning to votes that are cast? That is what is about to happen. It is a sham."

Republicans in both chambers said the Bush administration has done an adequate job of keeping Congress informed of trade negotiations. A senior aide on the Senate Finance Committee said several hours each Friday are devoted to bipartisan briefings on trade issues.

Regardless, Democrats have promised to make fast-track an issue next year. "I don't think fast-track has worked very well," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a staunch opponent of fast-track and several of the free-trade agreements. "If Bush wins the election, fast-track should be taken away, it shouldn't be renewed. If Kerry wins the election, then we need to really examine how fast-track can work, and write stronger requirements for labor, environment and other standards that both President Kerry and his successors can live with that will bring to trade agreements the direction we should take the country."

Levin agreed that the extent to which fast-track authority is reviewed will hinge largely on who wins the White House in November. "Once Kerry's elected, there will be a thorough review of trade authority," he said. "Kerry will try to rebuild a bipartisan consensus on trade. And I think he will try to address several shortcomings, especially environmental and labor standards."

Daniel T. Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said the Bush administration has used fast-track authority appropriately.

"The evidence is overwhelming that Congress has had input and that the administration has taken their concerns to heart and put them into the agreements," he said. "The proof is in the pudding: Congress has passed four free-trade agreements by overwhelming votes."

As for jettisoning fast-track, Griswold said, "It's hard for me to think of a more shortsighted, self-defeating idea."