A week after unions celebrated a setback for Fast Track (also known as Trade Promotion Authority), the seeming victory came unzipped in a series of parliamentary maneuvers. Fast Track is a bill that makes it easier for NAFTA-style deals—like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership—to pass Congress.
Democrats in Congress generally oppose the NAFTA-style deals, while Republicans overwhelmingly support them. The deals give special rights to corporate investors, and are strongly opposed by labor and environmental groups. Eleven NAFTA-style agreements have been approved so far, and they are believed to have accelerated the offshoring of U.S. jobs.
When the deals have passed, it’s usually because a minority of Democrats joined the majority of Republicans in voting for it.
This year, to provide political cover for 14 Senate Democrats who wanted to vote for Fast Track, the Senate combined it with a vote to reauthorize Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that pays to retrain and relocate workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade. The combined bill passed 62-37 on May 22.
In the House, the Republican leadership scheduled separate votes June 12 on the two items. Republicans tend to oppose Trade Adjustment Assistance, so Republican leaders counted on Democratic votes to pass it. Instead, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led Democrats to vote against the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill—to prevent passage of the package as a whole (House and Senate versions of a bill have to match in order to become law). The Fast Track bill passed the House 219-211 (with support from about one in six Democrats), but the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill went down 126-302. Unions called it a victory.
But Fast Track supporters kept trying. On June 18, the House held a second Fast Track vote intending to send an identical stand-alone bill to the Senate. It passed the House 218-208. The stand-alone Fast Track bill then passed the Senate on June 24 by 60-38, and the Senate also passed a Trade Adjustment Assistance amendment to another bill by voice vote. The following day, the House voted the new Trade Adjustment Assistance bill; this time, it passed 286-138, with only six Democrats voting against it.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance bill extends assistance through June 2022, with an expansion of the program through June of 2021. That includes $2.7 billion in funds for worker retraining and education, while making workers in service industries eligible. In past TAAs, only manufacturing workers impacted by trade were eligible.
The bill also extends and expands a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance, and it includes subsidies for the wages of workers 50 years of age or older forced to find lower-paying jobs than the ones they lost to global competition.
President Obama signed both bills into law on June 29.
Fast Track’s passage means that for the next six years, any trade agreements will get a rapid up-or-down vote in Congress, with limited debate and no opportunity to amend.
However, under the new fast track law, all future trade agreements must be posted on a website for 60 days, “for people to scrutinize, and take a look at, and pick apart,” Obama said at the bill signing.
“So the debate on the particular provisions of trade will not end with this bill signing,” Obama continued. “But I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to say at the end of the day that the trade agreements that come under this authorization are going to improve the system of trade that we have right now. And that’s a good thing.”
HOW THEY VOTED: All but two backed fast track in OR and SW Washington
In the Senate: Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Washington Democrats Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray voted for Fast Track. Wyden’s fellow Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley voted against Fast Track.
In the House: Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Kurt Schrader were among the 28 House Democrats who joined 190 Republicans to pass Fast Track. Also voting for it were Eastern Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden and Southwest Washington Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler. Democrat Peter DeFazio was the only Oregon member of the U.S. House to vote against Fast Track.
… and one senator could have stopped it
The stand-alone Fast Track vote in the Senate passed by a single vote in a sense, because to get to a vote, there first had to be 60 votes to cut off debate (that vote, the previous day, was 60-37). Thus any U.S. Senator could have stopped Fast Track in its tracks.