An unprecedented corporate power grab is underway, and citizens must act now to defeat it. The Bush administration’s pressure on Congress to adopt a no-amendment “fast-track” consideration of a new version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), an international agreement regulating most of the world’s trade, is an attempt to make that power grab a reality.
Under the banner of free trade, the Administration is supporting treaty positions that go well beyond free trade to include provisions that are likely to erode or block current and proposed health and safety rights in the United States. Since international treaties subordinate national sovereignties, it is wise to examine carefully what the hidden consequences can be for consumers, workers and the environment. We don’t need a fast-track to hide problems but rather a careful deliberation to make sure the people’s interests are served.
There are three reasons why a Congressional “fast-track” procedure is a “false-track” road downward.
1. Fast-track is anti-democratic. It dangerously concentrates power in the hands of the President and prevents Congress from making amendments to alter any portion of trade agreements. It leaves Congress with either a yes or no vote on the whole package, and the vote must be taken within 60 days of receiving the agreements. By speeding debate and sharply limiting Congress’s power, fast-track creates a severe barrier against citizens who want to influence the actual content of trade agreements.
2. Fast-track is bad for consumers. Provisions in the GATT agreement would limit the power of federal, state and local governments in the United States from regulating dangerous substances such as pesticides or properly inspecting meat imports. Some of the consequences of fast-tracking are already rearing their ugly heads. The massive U.S.-Canada free trade agreement — which was fast-tracked in 1988 — weakened U.S. border inspections of beef in one of its little known provisions, and has led to the import of contaminated meat into the United States.
3. Fast-track is bad for the environment and workers’ health and safety. GATT would allow many U.S. environmental and occupational safety laws to be labeled “technical barriers to trade” and open them up to challenge by foreign countries. GATT dispute resolution panels could order the United States to lower its standards or be subject to fines, countervailing trade sanctions or even expulsion from GATT itself. Additionally, GATT’s emphasis on “harmonizing” environmental laws across national boundaries will limit the United States’s ability to enact tough anti-pollution laws, because harmonization usually means uniformity downward, not upward to the stronger standards.
Fast-track compromises our sovereignty for no benefit. By playing nations with greatly different standards of living against one another, multinational corporations hope to lower consumer protection, environmental and worker safety standards and wage levels. GATT is a hidden wolf of deregulation in free trade clothing.
Corporations want to use the pending GATT agreement to escape regulation and accountability under U.S. laws by having them declared non-tariff trade barriers. Under the U.S-Canada Free Trade Agreement, a Canadian challenge to a current ban on asbestos foreshadows the dangers posed by GATT. The reason for the challenge is clear: Canada wants to sell its hazardous asbestos to the United States.
Purposely shrouding the actual content of trade agreements in arcane phrases and technical terms, the administration and its corporate allies hope that the public will not be alerted to the effects of GATT until too late, when it is already in place. To avoid extensive Congressional review, President Bush wants a Congressional fast-track. Congress is expected to decide by late May whether it will tie its hands against any amendments.
Corporations know they can succeed with their plans if they can lock the public out. But an informed public can stop them. We the people can send Congress a prompt message: Stop fast-track; vote for resolutions introduced by Representative Byron Dorgan, D-ND, and Senator Ernest Hollings, D-SC.