The Multinational Monitor

November 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 11


The Perilous Fast-Track

Citizens of the world beware. Negotiators are scrambling to hammer out a final revised version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in early 1991 after a failed attempt in December 1990. The new GATT will primarily benefit multinational corporations. Consumers, the environment, workers and the Third World are unlikely to receive any of the purported benefits of GATT and will suffer significantly because of it.

The explicit, benevolent-sounding goal of GATT negotiators, working on an elaborate agreement to regulate trade among more than 100 nations, including the United States, is to liberalize world trade by reducing non-tariff trade barriers. What GATT negotiators, with the United States as the primary driving force, are actually pushing is an international deregulation agenda. Specifically, they hope to establish weak international consumer and environmental standards which no country could exceed, abolish programs in industrialized countries which protect workers and farmers on the grounds that they interfere with trade and pry open markets in the Third World, even at the cost of destroying domestic businesses in the world's poorest countries.

Because of its far-reaching effect, GATT deserves very careful examination by Congress, which must vote on whether to adopt the agreement. But GATT may not receive the scrutiny it deserves.

The Bush administration acquired enormous power to shape the U.S. negotiating position in GATT with the passage of the 1988 Trade Act. Although this legislation instructed the president to negotiate with certain broad goals in mind and required him to consult with Congress, Congress agreed to forfeit many of its legislative rights and responsibilities. In giving the president what is known as "fast-track authority," Congress agreed to vote on a GATT agreement within 90 days after it is presented by the president, with no amendments permitted. This removed Congress's only substantial role in the negotiation process--its right to examine and amend the agreement the president negotiates.

The limitations on Congressional involvement are intended to strengthen the administration's negotiating position. Proponents of the fast-track procedure argue that if Congress were able to amend an agreement--even to adjust it along the margins--U.S. negotiators would not be credible. Other nations' negotiators would know that compromises and agreed-on texts would be subject to later alteration, and the negotiating process would break down.

The most significant effect of the fast-track legislation, however, is to concentrate power dangerously in the executive branch. While the U.S. government system of checks and balances does not function perfectly, it does tend to check the excesses of any one branch of government.

In the context of the GATT negotiations, Congress's shirking of its constitutional role intensifies the power of multinational corporations. Multinationals, led by companies such as American Express and Cargill and organized into the Multilateral Trade Negotiations (MTN) Coalition, are the dominant influence on the administration's negotiators.

Business groups also have tremendous sway in the legislature,but Congress is subject to more diffused influences and is more responsive to citizen pressure and concerns. Trade associations of domestic industries such as textiles, commodity farm groups and public interest organizations--all opposed to significant provisions of GATT--have much more pull in Congress than they do with the Bush administration.

The "fast-track" issue also has ramifications beyond GATT. The U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (see Multinational Monitor, May 1990) was approved with the fast-track process, and the Bush administration is currently requesting fast-track authorization as it prepares to enter into negotiations for a free trade agreement with Mexico.

Belatedly, the Senate is considering rescinding the fast-track authorization for GATT. Citizens should contact their representatives and especially senators and tell them to support the resolution, S-342, introduced by Senator Kent Conrad, D-ND. If passed, the bill would revoke the Bush administration's fast- track authorization for GATT and subject a GATT agreement to the careful scrutiny it merits. Citizens should also demand that their elected legislators refuse to cede their authority to the President and that they vote against the Bush administration's request for fast-track authorization for its free-trade negotiations with Mexico.

Table of Contents