These days it is rare that we can be thankful for bipartisan agreement on anything in Congress. So, it is worth noting that a sizeable bloc of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives have united to preserve Congress' authority over trade agreements.
Massachusetts lost 42 percent of its manufacturing jobs -- an incredible 178,446 lost jobs -- since implementation of agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization. Many other states have also been hit hard. And an array of environmental and consumer protections laws on which our families rely have been attacked and weakened under those deals.
So, it's not surprising that NAFTA-style trade deals have grown increasingly unpopular with American voters across the political spectrum. What is surprising is that First District representative Richard Neal did not join the 190 Democratic and GOP House members insisting that Congress maintain its power to make sure that we are not slammed with another bad trade deal.
At issue is a push by the large corporations that got us into NAFTA to pressure Congress to delegate away the constitutional authority over trade that the Founders wisely placed with the legislative branch. They want Congress to agree to "Fast Track" authority as negotiators rush to sign a massive and controversial new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), before year's end.
If Congress agrees to the extreme Fast Track scheme, this NAFTA-style agreement with 11 Asian and Latin American countries could be signed before Congress gets to vote on it, with a guarantee that it could then be railroaded through Congress quickly with no amendments allowed and limited debate. Fast Track is an extraordinary procedure that has only ever been used 16 times since Richard Nixon cooked it up in the early 1970s, including for NAFTA.
Not only did Rep. Neal fail to join 151 fellow Democrats in expressing clear opposition to Fast Track. He also did not even join a majority of his Democratic colleagues on the House committee responsible for trade in warning that many in Congress do not favor the old process for negotiating and approving trade deals. Rep. Neal should have no problem making clear his opposition to Fast Track -- he voted against it on four separate occasions. Has he now flip-flopped to supporting this undemocratic tool for pushing damaging deals?
Leaks from the extremely secretive TPP negotiation reveal that the proposed deal would expand on NAFTA's terms that help firms offshore jobs, eliminating many of the usual risks that make corporations think twice about relocating American manufacturing and service-sector jobs to low-wage countries. The TPP includes Vietnam, a country that bans independent unions and that has become the lower wage alternative to even China for job offshoring. Vietnam was recently red-listed by the Department of Labor as one of just four countries that use both child labor and forced labor in apparel production.
And, the TPP would empower foreign corporations to attack our domestic environmental, health and safety laws in foreign tribunals and demand taxpayer compensation for policies they think undermine their expected future profits.
Among the reasons for growing congressional opposition to Fast Track are the results of the last Fast-Tracked agreement. That 2011 deal with Korea is the template for the TPP. The overall U.S. trade deficit with Korea grew 37 percent during the first year of the pact, resulting in the net loss of 40,000 American jobs according to a recent study. This is the opposite of what the Chamber of Commerce promised when urging members of Congress to vote for the deal, which Rep. Neal unfortunately did. Not only did imports from Korea increase, but overall U.S. goods exports to Korea declined by 10 percent in comparison to the year before FTA implementation.
The U.S. auto industry has been among the hardest hit. While U.S. automotive exports to Korea increased by $114 million in the first year of the deal compared with the year before the agreement took effect, U.S. automotive imports from Korea ballooned by more than $2.5 billion. This huge disparity caused the U.S.-Korea automotive trade deficit to swell by about 16 percent.
Fast Track would remove Congress' authority to make sure deals like the TPP do not cause us more harm. In the past, Congress has said no to this power grab, but the TPP is now packed with so many outrageous provisions, including a ban on Buy American policies, that TPP's boosters have concluded that this Constitution-busting procedure is needed to get this version of the TPP past Congress.
The last thing that any member of Massachusetts' congressional delegation should do is support Fast Track and give up their constitutional authority to protect us from another damaging trade deal.
Hopefully Rep. Neal will join his GOP and Democratic congressional colleagues in publicly stating his opposition to Fast Track. This is the only way that we will get trade deals that benefit most of us, not do more harm.
Barbara Clancy is national coordinator, Alliance for Democracy. The column was also signed by Alliance constituents Cheryl Rose of Dalton, and Al Blake and Tommie Hutto-Blake of Becket.