United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2By Brad Thacker…  
After months of political maneuvering and a massive lobbying effort by the Obama administration, the battle over Fast Track Authority is finally coming to a head.  Last month the bill, which was supported by both Colorado’s Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, passed the Senate by a filibuster-proof margin. Now it moves to the House of Representatives where it could be voted on as early as Friday.

The bill puts a straightjacket on Congress, limiting its authority to consider and modify upcoming trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), allowing corporations to gain even tighter control over our economy and regulatory process. Critics of these agreements describe them as “corporate coups” and warn that they usher in an era of “corporate serfdom.” The agreements themselves are so secretive that the text of draft copies is classified; it is illegal to release any part of the agreement to the public, although early drafts of some sections of the TPP have been published by Wikileaks. Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists work hand-in-hand with US trade representatives to hammer out the terms of the agreements.

Normally Congress has the authority to debate and dissect trade agreements, and to modify provisions with changes on which they agree. But because these agreements are likely so onerous, Obama can only push them through if he is first granted Fast Track Authority (FTA) by Congress, which it would do by voting to relinquish their power to the President. Among its many rules, FTA limits Congress to an up or down vote on the treaty text  — they can’t modify the final draft in any way. It also limits debate and eliminates several floor procedures, including Senate unanimous consent, normal debate and cloture rules. If the President is granted Fast Track Authority, getting the TPP and TTIP passed becomes much simpler, and the details of these agreements remain in the shadows.

So why would Congress vote to hand over their power to negotiate trade agreements? In spite of the obvious benefits to the campaign coffers of US congresspeople seeking reelection, and the tremendous pressure by the Obama Administration on congressional Democrats, not everyone does, and the final vote on FTA is likely to be very close, pitting an odd coalition of the Obama Administration, traditional Republicans and corporatist Democrats, against another odd coalition of progressive Democrats and Tea-party Republicans.

Which brings me to my own Congressman – Representative Ed Perlmutter. Last fall, Perlmutter responded to a concerted grassroots campaign opposing the FTA with a letter to his constituents saying that, although he hadn’t yet decided how he would vote on the TPP or TTIP, he did take a stance of FTA, saying:

I believe it is important for Congress to be involved in these negotiations from the beginning in order for the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to negotiate with our full input and support.  This is why I am opposed to the recently proposed Trade Promotion Authority, or Fast Track Authority.  Congress should have the opportunity to work with the USTR, fully debate the final agreement in Congress, and make changes if necessary.

Fast forward to last week, June 3rd, during a national “Fast Track day of Action” when several groups critical of FTA (350.org, Food and Water Watch, AFL-CIO, CWA, and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center) met outside Pearlmutter’s office in Lakewood for a press conference thanking him for his opposition to the bill. Following speeches by these groups, the rally was paid a courtesy visit by Jerry Pifer, Director of Constituent Services and Outreach for Representative Perlmutter. Jerry cautioned that Perlmutter was under heavy pressure from the Obama Administration to support FTA, that his position was “evolving” and “in flux”, and that he was only now getting the other side of the story –  arguments in favor of FTA.

Pifer followed up her visit with an email that included several attachments, including a graphic checklist with green checkmarks and red X’s highlighting “key improvements” in the latest FTA, plus two documents touting the benefits of TPP to Colorado’s economy. A reader unaware that the text of the TPP is a closely guarded secret might nod their head in approval at the “facts” presented in these documents, but that irony was not lost on the knowing. The only way to ‘set the record straight’ is to release the complete text of the TPP before Congress votes on FTA.  Anything less is a cynical ploy to hoodwink the American public.  

Perlmutter’s vote opposing FTA cannot be taken for granted. Pifer hinted that the Obama Administration’s pressure is peeling away opposition, so only more concerted pressure from critics will ensure he remains opposed.  The next few days will be critical to that effort. On Thursday, June 11, and Friday, June 12, 350.org is rallying in front of Perlmutter’s office in Lakewood from noon to 1PM to oppose Fast Track and the TPP. It is likely our last, best chance to defeat an ominously secretive deal that will affect our economy and democracy for decades.

By Brad Thacker