By comparison with many other nations, our country over the years has adopted stronger health and safety standards in the environment, marketplace, and workplace. Many of these standards have been under attack by the mindless deregulators of the Reagan/Bush Administrations. Now, a new assault looms on the horizon in the guise of “free trade” to weaken past or deter future efforts for food, drug, air, water, automobile, and industrial safety. For months, the Bush Administration and representatives from 107 other nations have been meeting behind closed doors to expand the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The final draft of the negotiations, published last December, is a raw deal for American citizens and the global environment, jeopardizing existing national environmental, labor and consumer laws as well as our ability to legislate stronger laws in the future.
Similarly, the announcement of a proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is imminent. NAFTA will effectively be a mini‑ GATT for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Like GATT, NAFTA can have adverse effects on our current laws and our national sovereignty.
The pitfalls of these trade agreements, especially what is meant by “non-tariff trade barriers,” are rarely discussed by the media or the Bush Administration.
These agreements jeopardize current U.S. safety and environmental regulations which are out of line with GATT or NAFTA policies. To expand trade, the Administration and its multinational corporate allies argue, environmental and consumer standards must be harmonized among nations to consistent levels so as not to inhibit the free flow of goods. Unfortunately for the U.S., this harmonization could mean a ratcheting downward for many existing federal and state standards to meet lower foreign common denominators, since most U.S. laws are currently stronger than the standards named in GATT and NAFTA.
For the American consumer, the weakening or repeal of regulations brought about by decades of citizen advocacy is a hazardous proposition. Under GATT and NAFTA, for instance, food safety standards, rather than being set by Congress and state legislatures, would be determined by a Rome-based agency called the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Codex, a U.N. subgroup dominated by multinational food and chemical companies, allows residues of carcinogenic pesticides long-banned in the U.S. such as DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin on fruits, vegetables, meats and grains.
Laws on hazardous waste, auto emissions, endangered species, and recycling — to name but a few — could all be considered “non-tariff trade barriers” and could be weakened or eliminated to meet GATT and NAFTA’s lower international standards. The free trade agreements could literally jeopardize hundreds of federal, state and local standards enacted under our system.
While the Bush Administration claims that our laws will not easily come under attack, we have already witnessed a glimpse of the future under the more limited version of GATT now in place. Last year, a GATT Tribunal labeled a long-standing U.S. environmental law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans tuna caught using dolphin-killing techniques, an unfair trade barrier that must be eliminated. Similarly, a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada was used to eliminate meat inspection on the border, to force Canada to accept food with one‑ third more pesticides than allowed under their law, and to mount a legal challenge by Canada against the U.S. safety ban on asbestos.
While these agreements are written in the standard, dense “legalese” one would expect, the specifics are often quite explicit nonetheless. For example, in referring to the GATT members’ food safety standards, which are known as “sanitary and phytosanitary measures,” the GATT agreement proclaims: “To harmonize sanitary and phytosanitary measures on as wide a basis as possible, contracting parties shall base their sanitary and phytosanitary measures on international standards, guidelines, or recommendations, where they exist, except as otherwise provided for in this decision.”
To make matters worse, the dispute resolution mechanisms called for in the trade agreements offend our nation’s proper sovereignty. If the Congress approves these agreements, U.S. refusal to comply with the decisions of trade panels would result in trade sanctions against the United States. Moreover, these panels operate under rules we would find intolerably secretive and lacking in due process compared to U.S. law.
Only Congress and an aware citizenry stand between these trade proposals and their incorporation into U.S. law. House Concurrent Resolution 246 authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) notifies President Bush that Congress will not accept trade agreements which jeopardize U.S. health, safety, labor and environmental laws. The Waxman-Gephardt Resolution, which 218 Representatives — a majority of the House — have co-sponsored, sends a timely signal to the Bush Administration that no trade agreement is better than a bad trade agreement.