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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fast Track

Air Date: Week of

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House Republicans want to give President Bush more power to negotiate international trade deals. Critics say the measure doesn't do enough to protect workers and the environment. From Washington, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on the upcoming lobby for votes.


CURWOOD: The U.S. House of Representatives could soon give President Bush an early Christmas gift. Members are scheduled to vote shortly on what's called "fast track trade promotion authority." President Bush called fast track a top priority when he took office, but the measure faces some opposition in the house. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Hi there, Anna.


CURWOOD: Anna, first, can you explain for us, just what is fast track?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, fast track is a pretty simple procedural mechanism. It's meant to streamline trade negotiations. Basically, it allows the president and his trade representatives to go off, broker deals with other countries, and then when they come back with an agreement, Congress has to vote either yes or no. No amendments are allowed at that point. So basically, it gives the U.S. a way to guarantee trading partners that whatever deals they come to aren't going to be undone back in the U.S., by Congress. Congress isn't entirely without say. They do get to provide the president with a set of negotiating objectives, and he also has to notify them before he enters into any negotiations.

CURWOOD: For years, we had fast track. I think it lapsed back in 1994, and since then Congress hasn't renewed it. Why not, Anna?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For a lot of the senators, it's really just a procedural problem. They feel Congress just shouldn't give up so much authority to the president when it comes to trade negotiations. In the House, the objections mostly center around labor and environmental issues. Lawmakers are concerned about human rights abuses or weak child labor laws in other parts of the world. They're also worried about losing manufacturing jobs overseas. In terms of the environment, lawmakers want to make sure that lowering barriers to trade doesn't also mean weakening environmental regulations or enforcement.

An example of this, just this last October, the Mexican government was ordered to pay a U.S. company nearly 17 million dollars. What had happened was Mexico had denied the company the right to open a hazardous waste treatment site in one of its central states. An international tribunal ruled that this denial was a violation of NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement. So, this is the kind of situation some lawmakers are worried we're going to see more of in different parts of the world if free trade isn't done right. And they want more of a hand in the process than fast track currently gives them.

CURWOOD: Well, Anna, is anyone talking about amending fast track so that it would give Congress more authority over how and what the president does negotiate?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's what some senior Democrats have been pushing for. They came out with their own fast track bill. It would require trading partners to adopt the five core international labor standards, and it would also ensure that countries could enforce a multi-lateral environmental agreement without being in violation of trade agreements. At this point, though, you're probably not going to hear much more about that bill; the authors insist they were shut out of the fast track process. Instead, what's coming to the floor is a measure from Republican congressman Bill Thomas--he's the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee. His bill leaves a lot more wiggle room, you could say, for the president. On labor it asks only that trading partners follow their own domestic labor laws, and, in terms of the environment the bill is fairly vague in its language. It talks about the president seeking to promote consideration of multi-lateral environmental agreements, but it doesn't set any kind of standard for what that means.

CURWOOD: Well, of course, Republicans have the majority in the House. Do they have the votes on this one?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: As of a couple of weeks ago, it looked like they didn't. The GOP leaders are scrambling pretty hard right now, trying to rally more votes. But many people that I've spoken with on both sides of this issue tell me they think the final tally's really going to depend on President Bush. They think he's got to come forward and start working individual members on this, if he wants to see a fast track victory. And that kind of personal attention, as you might imagine, may not be in the cards right now, given that the White House is fairly busy with the war against terrorism.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Thanks so much, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome.



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