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

Fast Track Derailed

Air Date: Week of

President Clinton took a hard hit this past week. 80 percent of his own party refused to support his request for broader authority on trade deals. A number of factors led to defeat of the measure knows as fast track. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, tells Steve that concern for the environment was high on the list.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
These days, international trade agreements are often used to skirt national environmental laws. So increasingly, the green lobby on Capitol Hill has looked askance at these trade deals. Four years ago the North American Free Trade Agreement incorporated side letters to protect the environment. But this year, when President Clinton proposed so-called Fast Track authority to negotiate trade pacts subject only to a limited Congressional veto, he declined to include environmental and labor safeguards. As a result, organized labor and environmental lobbyists worked together to hand the President one of the most stunning setbacks of his administration. Eighty percent of House Democrats abandoned him. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, tells me that high on the list of those who opposed Fast Track was concern for the environment.

POPE: There were obviously a series of factors which came together. Some of the votes against Fast Track were from people who just don't believe in trade agreements. Some of them were from people in Congress who were concerned about the impact on living standards and workers' rights. But the critical block of votes that defeated the President this time came from members of Congress who believed that in negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement the Administration had promised it would negotiate an agreement which protected America's environment, and the NAFTA hasn't protected the environment and therefore that Congress wanted to have the right to review any future trade agreements to make sure that they really do protect our environment.

CURWOOD: Okay, Carl Pope. Now, when you looked around Capitol Hill, how may votes do you think you had because people had these environmental concerns?

POPE: Well, I think there were about 25 members of Congress who voted in favor of NAFTA and voted or would have voted against this Fast Track proposal. There are a lot of people who have both the concerns for workers' rights and the concern for the environment. And I don't know that you can separate the two. But I think of the votes that changed since we voted on NAFTA. More than half of them probably changed on environmental grounds.

CURWOOD: How big a deal is this victory for you environmental advocates in the Congress? How do you rate this on the scale of victories you've had over the last few legislative years?

POPE: Well, this is certainly one of our biggest victories over the past 4 or 5 years. We have been trying for a long time to bring home to the Congress the fact that these free trade agreements are not just about tariffs. Hidden in these agreements are all kinds of provisions which effectively subordinate American law to decisions of the international trade bureaucracies, including American environmental law. And this is the first time we've been able to convince enough members of Congress that the threat to the environment was real and serious so that they would defeat a trade proposal, in significant degree based on its environmental impact.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, why is this such a big deal, the Fast Track question? I mean, presidents used to have the authority to do this. I mean, a trade deal is essentially a treaty, and historically Congress and particularly the Senate has voted a treaty up or down.

POPE: Well, one of the differences between trade agreements and treaties is trade agreements only require a majority vote. One of the reasons that treaties get the up or down treatment is it takes a two-thirds vote. And I think if the Fast Track agreement had said that you got fast-tracked if you got two-thirds of the vote in the Congress, it probably wouldn't have been very controversial. But remember, NAFTA was approved by a very narrow margin in the House of Representatives. And we believe that when almost half of the members of the House of Representatives have serious problems with a trade agreement, they ought to have the right to debate the individual provisions so their constituents can tell where they stand on issues like: are we going to clean up the border with Mexico? Are we going to require that food which is imported into the United States actually be safe?

CURWOOD: How would you design Fast Track to get it to work if you were suddenly in the White House perhaps after this defeat maybe there's an opening, Mr. Pope. What would it say? What would it do?

POPE: It would say that the President has the power to negotiate changes in tariff levels using Fast Track. But if the Administration wants to embody in a treaty changes in American law, those have to be voted up or down on a case by case basis. I think the President should have the right to get rid of tariffs. I don't think the President should have the right in trade negotiations to make changes in substantive American law about workers' protections or environmental protections.

CURWOOD: Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club. Thank you, sir.

POPE: Thank you, Steve.



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