Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

Fast Track: Why Now?

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Fast Track: Why Now?

by David Kusnet and Robert E. Scott

In a major speech last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, President Clinton set the terms of debate on international trade.

Returning to views he expressed in his 1992 campaign and intermittently since then, Clinton said trade agreements should include “environmental protection, consumer protection, [and] labor standards.”

Clinton’s remarks set the stage for the debate on an issue Republicans are raising in the House of Representatives this week: whether to grant the President “Fast Track” trade authority in a form that he no longer wants.

The proposal is virtually identical to one that Congressional leaders and the Clinton Administration were forced to put aside last year in the face of public opposition.

It would give the President authority to negotiate trade agreements that would be considered by Congress on a simple up-and-down vote. And it would specifically exclude labor and environmental standards from those agreements.

Most Americans opposed this “Fast Track” because they have seen the consequences of trade agreements that protect rights of private investors and transnational corporations but offer few safeguards for workers’ rights, environmental standards, and consumer safety.

Largely as a result of these one-sided deals, the U.S. trade deficit has grown to more than $14 billion per month. The Labor Department estimates that 197,000 workers in the United States and Canada have lost their jobs as a result of NAFTA. And most working Americans are increasingly at the mercy of employers who can threaten to move to Mexico where workers have low wages and few rights.

Whatever Clinton’s motives may be, there’s little doubt that Congressional Republican leaders are preoccupied by politics, not policy. Forcing the “Fast Track” vote just a few weeks before the mid-term elections, Republicans see this as a “wedge issue” forcing Clinton to choose between his supporters in the labor and environmental movements and his sometime allies in the business community.

By declaring that trade agreements must protect people as well as property, Clinton has staked out a stance that is supported by most Americans — and by formidable arguments as well. In a recent survey published by Bank Boston, 73% of Americans supported including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. They understand that, as Clinton contends, international economic competition must not become “a race to the bottom” on workers’ wages and environmental pollution.

And the case for social standards in trade agreements is supported by a view of this historic moment shared by national leaders ranging from President Clinton to Speaker Gingrich. They’ve observed — correctly — that the current shift to an information-based, global economy resembles earlier times of transition such as the emergence of a national economy in the industrial age.

This analysis suggests that, just as in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, the nation must act to set standards for corporate behavior and offer security for working people, so that all Americans care share in the gains of a growing economy. That’s the case that President Clinton is making. The Congress should reject any Fast Track proposal that does not meet these standards.


David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at EPI, served as Chief Speech Writer for President Bill Clinton from 1992 – 1994. He is the author of “Speaking American: How Democrats Can Win in the ’90s.”

Robert Scott is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. He specializes in international economic issues.

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