Approval of a fast track trade policy is a priority for the Bush administration and one of the cornerstones of its economic recovery plan. This week, in a narrow victory for the president, the House approved the so-called Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. The vote was 215-to-214, and came after emotional appeals to patriotism on the House floor ... and an 11th hour "discussion" in the Oval Office between the president and fence-sitting lawmakers on the merits of TPA.
Republicans hope the passage of the bill helps pre-empt concerns of opponents in the Senate, where the measure will be considered early next year. But in a battle of last-minute photo opportunities leading up to this week's House vote, it was apparent the critics of Trade Promotion Authority would not be appeased.
Trade Promotion Authority or TPA would grant the president wide-ranging latitude in the negotiating of trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but not amend. That sort of power worries lawmakers representing agricultural, textile and manufacturing districts. They say previous free trade agreements, like those negotiated under the GATT and NAFTA treaties, have cost the U.S. billions in lost jobs and wages.
At separate news conferences in Washington this week, House Democrats attacked the plan.
Rep. John Spratt, D-SC: "If you go back and check the rhetoric ... and if you check our trade statistics following each of those trade agreements, you'll find none of the claims have been substantiated or borne out."
Critics claim 265 American-produced goods, including agricultural commodities ranging from wheat gluten to canned pineapple, have been harmed by foreign subsidies and import dumping that's occurred with the liberalization of global trade. Relative to current anti-dumping regulations, they say TPA is too permissive and allows no reciprocity for violations.
Competitive imports also raise concerns over lax foreign environmental and labor standards.
Tom Buis, NFU: "If these issues are not effectively dealt with, the global trade playing field will continue to be tilted against U.S. agriculture."
Not so, according to backers of the legislation.
Rep. J.C. Watts: "America is officially in a recession and now is not the time to isolate the greatest country in all the world."
The administration claims the backing of 85 farm groups for TPA, calling it a necessary tool in the negotiating of trade deals beneficial to agriculture.
Ann Veneman: "The European Union uses 70 times more export subsidies for agriculture than we do. We need to negotiate an agreement that phases out those export subsidies and that's what we need TPA to do."
Still other critics raised food safety concerns. They note that since the passage of NAFTA in 1992, less than 1 percent of imported food faces federal inspection. And Food and Drug Administration studies reveal that imported food failed to meet federal standards for pesticide and microbial contamination at three times the rate of domestically grown produce.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-OH: 'Outbreaks of food poisoning should not be the tool we use to detect tainted produce shipments."
Fast track exacerbates food safety problems, opponents say, by lowering U.S. regulations rather than seeking to raise international standards in a variety of trade-related areas.
Rep. Gene Green, D-TX: "Our problem with out trade emphasis is that we are getting the cart before the horse. We need to make sure we're trying to raise the standard of living of all our trading partners and that means food safety, that means environmental, that means wages, that means everything..."
As the too-close-to-call vote on TPA approached, House Democrats grew more critical of Bush administration methods of persuasion. They charge the White House implied that those who vote against TPA are somehow not fully committed to the War on Terrorism. Indeed, House Speaker Dennis Hastert told colleagues just before the vote that a ballot against TPA would "undercut the president at the worst possible time." Incensed Democrats say administration attempts to link trade policy to the War on Terrorism are unfair and unrelated to their specific problems with TPA.