The “Fast Track” Challenge to Democracy

Lynn Holland

October 15, 2013


A pitched battle is now underway in Congress – no, I’m not referring to the current shutdown of the government. There’s another battle unfolding away from the cameras, with profound implications for Americans and others around the world. This clash is about whether Congress should renew “Fast Track Authority,” the power given to the president to negotiate international trade agreements by largely sidestepping Congressional debate. With Fast Track, Congress would simply give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to the agreement with no amendments and little debate allowed.

Fast Track Authority, also called Trade Promotion Authority, was first authorized in 1974 and continued on- and off-again through 2007. It has been the means by which NAFTA and numerous other Free Trade Agreements have been enacted. Congress is now being pressured to pass another Fast Track measure though many are protesting that the Constitution expressly charges Congress with the responsibility of regulating commerce with foreign nations through Article 1, Section 8.  

Two sides have formed up on the issue. The administration is joined by the Right in pulling for Fast Track Authority. Groups such as the American Business Roundtable, the Trade Benefits America Coalition, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hope to see Congress pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) by the end of the year. Over 600 corporate advisers have helped put this measure together including representatives of companies such as Halliburton and Monsanto. As Thomas Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, vows: “We will launch a full-scale lobbying, grassroots, and education campaign to win passage of the TPP in Congress.” Fast Track authority will be needed to get quick passage of the TPP as it now stands, the product of seventeen secretive rounds of negotiation in different parts of the world.

With twelve countries now signed on – the U.S., Chile, Peru, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam – the TPP would embrace about 40% of the world’s economy and become the largest trade agreement ever approved by the US. Yet the stark absence of public input has raised deeply disturbing questions. As Senator Elizabeth Warren contends, the TPP will be “like Christmas morning” for big corporations. “They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public…. Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.”

Among those opposing Fast Track are over two thirds of the Democratic freshmen in the House. These Representatives object that the administration has refused to release “draft texts after more than three years of negotiations, and the few TPP texts that have leaked reveal serious problems.” For this reason, they state, we must reconsider “any action that would transfer Congress’s exclusive Constitutional trade authority to the president.” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and others have called specifically for chapters on the environment to guarantee sustainable trade practices and the creation of jobs. “That type of leadership is desperately needed,” says Arthur Stamoulis, director of Citizens Trade Campaign, “if we’re going to stop letting big corporations ship our jobs overseas and dump our wages and benefits overboard along the way.”

In addition, 400 civil society organizations representing labor, human rights, family farms, environmental and consumer interests, indigenous groups, and public health, have gotten involved along with many state and local groups. In letters to Congress, these groups have joined the call to reject Fast Track Authority in favor of an open, deliberative, and democratic approval process. In a uniting of labor and environmental interests, Teamsters president James Hoffa, and Sierra Club representative Michael Brune, joined forces to call for fair trade over so-called free trade agreements. As the two point out, “It’s time to stop letting big corporations ship our jobs overseas and dump our wages, benefits and protections overboard along the way.”

Unfortunately, coverage of the battle over the TPP and Fast Track Authority has not been embraced by the media and now has been lost in the commotion over the government shutdown playing out before our eyes. In the meantime, TPP proponents are getting the advantage of this media blackout. In the interest of avoiding what could well be a disastrous agreement we must demand that Congress reject Fast Track Authority, open up debate and otherwise resume it constitutional responsibilities. There can be no substitute for democracy.


Business Roundtable Network. Business, Agriculture Groups Send Letter to Congressmen Supporting TPA, September 10, 2013.

Citizens Trade Campaign. Democratic Revolt Against TPP and Fast Track. P.O. Box 77077, Washington DC, June 11, 2013.

Citizens Trade Campaign. Fast Track/Trade Promotion Authority. P.O. Box 77077, Washington DC, n.d.

Citizens Trade Campaign. Hundreds of US Organizations Urge Congress to Replace Fast Track. P.O. Box 77077, Washington DC, March 4, 2013.

Needam, Vickie. Business Roundtable pleads for action on fast-track authority. The Hill. September 10, 2013. 

Rimmer, M. Will Obama Fast-Track the Trans-Pacific Partnership?Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, American University Washington College of Law4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC, October 7, 2013.