In what the Obama Administration called a "procedural snafu," the House last week refused to extend a four-decade old program that grants protections to workers displaced by global trade. While this longstanding program has traditionally been popular among Democrats, the trade deal it would usher in if passed is one they fiercely oppose.
While the procedural details of what exactly transpired in the vote are fairly complex, the take-home message is this: the House successfully shot down a contentious piece of legislation, commonly referred to as Fast Track, that would grant the president executive powers to negotiate trade deals that cannot be amended or filibustered by Congress. And once that happens, President Obama would certainly use his fast track authority to speed along passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is a proposed free trade agreement with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim that would affect 40 percent of the global economy. The TPP would be the most expansive trade deal reached in history, and President Obama has made its success a top legislative priority in his last term.
It’s also one of the most divisive political issues on the Hill right now. Here’s why: The notion of "fast tracking" trade deals with almost no congressional oversight has led to the creation of odd alliances — putting the Democrats and Tea Party in one camp (against), and the Republicans and Obama Administration (for) in another. Pro-business Republicans are longtime supporters of free trade, while members of the Tea Party are against most anything that would allow the president to usurp legislative authority. As for Democrats, they argue that the TPP would allow multinational corporations to undermine labor safeguards, civil rights, environmental protection, and healthcare, and derail urgent efforts at fighting climate change. Organizations typically aligned with President Obama are against him here: labor unions, environmental groups, and even traditionally non-political groups have fought hard against Fast Track and the TPP.
Indeed, the potential harm from the trade deal seems to leave few interest groups untouched. To provide just a few examples, Doctors Without Borders has called the TPP the "worst trade deal ever," claiming that it will cause millions to lose access to life-saving medicines; left-leaning Global Exchange has pointed to the increasing number of sweatshops such a framework would lead to; and the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed its belief that the TPP would put overly restrictive controls on the Internet. And we’ve already seen our political leaders weaken standards for protection against human trafficking and child labor should the trade deal move forward.
These are all compelling arguments, and they are ones faith groups are making as well.
In February of this year, 35 religious groups — including Quaker, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic organizations — sent a letter to members of Congress to express their opposition to Fast Track (and by extension, the TPP). This broad coalition of faith leaders was emphatic that this is not just a political or economic issue, but one deeply important to people of faith: Our faith traditions call for community participation in the democratic process because we believe this is the only way to ensure all people have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the creation of good policies. "Fast track" is a broken and undemocratic process because it privileges the views of powerful global corporations in defining the terms of trade agreements, while excluding voices of those adversely impacted. This impedes progress towards a more just world.
This said, it’s actually quite difficult to know what exactly Fast Track would bring about in terms of the TPP — the administration will not make available the text of the proposed legislation to anyone other than Congress. Even this lack of transparency has been taken as an affront to Christian ethics. In its own letter to Congress, the PCUSA wrote, "Work done in the shadows only creates temptations that do not serve the common good. Shedding light is the metaphor that is at the core of Christian witness."
But thanks to WikiLeaks, some terms of the TPP are known, and these terms demonstrate that real harm would in fact be done by this deal, such as the creation of tribunals that would allow multinationals to sue states, a process that has already been shown to curtail environmental protections and public health policies.
Of course, all of this is why last week the Democrats shot down a program they’ve supported for four decades in order to stop Fast Track and the TPP. So then, is any of this discussion even relevant? Absolutely. For starters, it’s relevant because we’re coming up on the 2016 presidential election and most candidates have spoken out on how they would vote for Fast Track. But more importantly, it’s relevant because Republican proponents could bring the vote back to Congress on June 16 to see if they can undo what was done on June 12. And in the meantime, President Obama and Republican supporters will be working hard to turn Fast Track naysayers into loyal supporters.
While it’s unclear whether enough of the 302 no votes will, in the end, be persuaded, it is crucial that in this short time of influence over congressional leaders that supporters of Fast Track and the TPP are not the only voices heard on Capitol Hill. As always, we can pray that our country’s leaders make decisions that value and protect people, not profits.