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The long awaited new fast track trade bill has just been introduced in Congress, and it’s hard to conclude what’s worse about it: what its proponents say about it, or what the critics say. That is, if a detailed indictment by Public Citizen is true, then its avowed key innovation to strengthen lawmakers’ leverage over Executive Branch trade negotiators is a sham. But if supporters are right, then the bill is dominated by jaw-dropping contradictions between its specifics and the rationales and promises that they’ve made.

Although I’m skeptical of several Public Citizen critiques of American trade policy and legislation, the group has a proven track record of translating abstruse legislative language into plain English and identifying major and less-than-obvious implications. So everyone should take very seriously its contention that the draft law by no means empowers Congress to deny fast track treatment to agreements it judges haven’t met its specifications, and thus enable itself to make changes rather than settle for a straight yes-or-no vote. According to Public Citizen:

Instead of establishing a new ‘exit ramp,’ the bill includes the same impossible conditions from past Fast Track bills that make the mechanism to remove an agreement from Fast Track unusable. The bill’s only new feature in this respect is a new procedure that would be usable only after an agreement was already signed and entered into and that would require approval by 60 senators to take a pact off Fast Track consideration, even though a simple majority “no” vote in the Senate would have the same effect on an agreement. In contrast, the 1988 Fast Track empowered either the House Ways and Means or the Senate Finance Committees to vote by simple majority to remove the pact from Fast Track consideration with no additional floor votes required, and such a disapproval action was authorized before a president could sign and enter into a trade agreement.”

Yet even if the exit ramp is not flagrantly phony, the legislation would have no chance of ensuring adequate legislative oversight of trade policy-making – as the Constitution plainly envisages. The reason: Enough of the bill’s most important negotiating instructions are so vague and/or simply optional that demonstrating a clear disregard for Congress’ will looks impossible.

Take the text on currency manipulation. A majority of both Senate and House members have endorsed including enforceable disciplines on this protectionist practice in the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals. But here’s what the fast track bill says:

The principal negotiating objective of the United States with respect to currency practices is that parties to a trade agreement with the United States avoid manipulating exchange rates in order to prevent effective balance of payments adjustment or to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other parties to the agreement, such as through cooperative mechanisms, enforceable rules, reporting, monitoring, transparency or other means, as appropriate.

Enforceable rules” are mentioned, but such teeth are not required. Seeking them is just one of several approaches that U.S. negotiators are permitted to choose.

A similar problem plagues an especially touted feature of President Obama’s supposed high standards trade deals. The fast track bill declares as another “principal negotiating objective” dealing with the trade distortions often created by the activities of enterprises owned or controlled by foreign governments. The instruction here amounts to mandating an effort of some kind. The Executive Branch is told

to seek commitments that – (A) eliminate or prevent trade distortions and unfair competition favoring state-owned and state-controlled enterprises to the extent of their engagement in commercial activity, and (B) ensure that such engagement is based solely on commercial considerations, in particular through disciplines that eliminate or prevent discrimination and market-distorting subsidies and that promote transparency.

In other words, if U.S. diplomats seek this goal (or simply say they have?) but fail to achieve it, that meets the rock-bottom bar set by the fast track bill. Unless opponents are supposed to have to prove a negative?

Nor does the fast track bill say anything about the crucial matter of thresholds. In theory, even if all the draft’s negotiating objectives were clear-cut requirements, it would be easy for legislators to reject expedited voting for trade agreements if they failed on all counts. By the same token, lawmakers could reasonably be expected to accept fast track procedures if administration negotiators fell short only in one respect.

At the same time, not all trade deal provisions are created equal or considered equal. So the letter of the fast track law could authorize Senate and House members to fast track treaties that completely ignore one or a handful of major listed goals.

Yet these problems and uncertainties all badly undermine the claims of real exit ramps in the fast track bill. For any possibility of Congress allowing itself to amend trade deals clashes violently with claims that expedited voting is essential to ensure that other countries negotiate seriously with the United States.

Time and again, fast track supporters have warned that foreign governments would have no incentive to put their best offers on the table, or continue talking trade at all, American lawmakers could press for further changes. They typically add that trade agreements tend to be delicate compromises and trade-offs among numerous interests and governments that could unravel completely if Congress balks for even a single reason.

In fact, it was always laughable to suppose that foreign economies would pass on trade talks if the United States insisted on respecting its own Constitutional standards – for the U.S. market has always been the paramount prize in a world largely hooked on export-led growth. With the United States outgrowing most of the rest of the world nowadays, the fast-trackers’ argument has become even sillier.

In other words, if American leaders truly hold such views, they completely misunderstand the dynamics of trade diplomacy, and can’t even keep their fast track stories straight. If their stated opinions are ruses, then they deserve no trust from Congress or the public. Meaning that a vote for fast track can only reward either incompetence or fakery.

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