U.S. Congress members introduced a bill yesterday to “fast track” trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. If passed, lawmakers would only have a small window of time to conduct hearings over binding trade provisions and give an up-or-down vote on ratification without any ability to amend the terms before they bind the U.S. government. This legal arrangement is at odds with the spirit of the Constitution, which gives Congress authority over U.S. trade policy. Fast track authority (also known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA) means that Congress hands that power over to the White House and the U.S. Trade Representative. Stopping fast track is one crucial step towards blocking secretive and undemocratic agreements like TPP and the EU-US trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The bill is titled the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act” or TPA 2014 for short. The press release for the bill claims that it “provides greater transparency and gives Congress greater oversight of the Administration’s trade negotiations.” This is grossly misleading to say the least. Fast-track would ensure that there's even less transparency and less oversight around trade negotiations that we have seen around the likes of TPP.
The U.S. Trade Rep is negotiating TPP and TTIP as if it already has fast track authority. Today's proposal, like all previous fast track bills, supposedly ensures ongoing Congressional participation throughout the process. But the US Trade Rep has already been making efforts to restrict Congress’s input on TPP. Congress members are only permitted to view the text in a specific room without the ability to take notes or be accompanied by legislative aides. All the while, they give privileged access to Trade Advisory Committees—mostly made up of advisors for big corporations—to view and comment on drafted text. The TPA 2014 bill carries guidelines encouraging “enhanced cooperation” with these Trade Advisory Committees.
The bill also outlines the principal negotiating objectives of the United States, and as suspected, it includes obligations for “Intellectual Property.” Some of the ways trade agreements can fulfill these obligations is by:
ensuring that standards of protection and enforcement keep pace with technological developments, and in particular ensuring that rightholders have the legal and technological means to control the use of their works through the Internet and other global communication media, and to prevent the unauthorized use of their works;
providing strong enforcement of intellectual property rights, including through accessible, expeditious, and effective civil, administrative, and criminal enforcement mechanisms;
So...what about fair use? The failure to mention the importance of balancing these objectives with the users' right reflects an ongoing prejudice that in the realm of “Intellectual Property,” it is only the rightsholders' private interests that matter. Such biased objectives in this trade bill make it even more likely that U.S. trade agreements will contain copyright provisions that are harmful to the Internet and users' rights to share, interact, and remix digital works.
If we block this bill, Congress will keep its authority to conduct full hearings on all of these agreements' provisions, so our elected representatives can be directly accountable for the kinds of harmful digital rights provisions that are included in these trade deals. At that point, we can take it up with our Senators and Representatives to question the entire secretive process that has been used to negotiate TPP and TTIP. It's clear that the White House and the US Trade Rep are willing to skimp on transparency in trade negotiations, but that is exactly why we need to prevent them from taking even more control over U.S. trade policy.
The time is now to stop fast track and demand that the U.S. Congress hold our trade negotiators accountable. Thankfully, more than 160 House Democrats and 27 House Republicans announced that they oppose fast-track last year, and other members of Congress have already indicated their opposition to this bill. We need to maintain the pressure and ask that our representatives oppose this draconian process. Demand that your Congressional representatives step up to the plate and take back their Constitutional role in trade policy and shine a light on this opaque, secretive process.