Taking a Fast Track Slowly

As the White House continues to press Congress for “fast-track” authority to speed approval of trade deals, some of the president’s fellow Democrats are joining the GOP in strong opposition.

Obama’s request is not without precedent: President Bill Clinton used such powers to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1993, although many Democrats and labor unions still argue that deals like NAFTA have cost the United States jobs, helping to send them overseas.

President George W. Bush used fast-track authority to push through Congress the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005.

The Obama administration is eager to have such authority, as it is in the midst of two difficult trade negotiations, one with Japan and 10 other Pacific nations, and the other a proposed trans-Atlantic deal with European Union nations.

The fast-track process gives presidents the authority to negotiate trade deals and then present them to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments allowed. Lobbyist groups like Citizens Trade Campaign argue that the fast-track mechanism is outdated and inappropriate, as it allows trade negotiators to keep their proposals hidden from the public until after pacts are signed. Because amendments are prohibited, changes are all but impossible.

Whether these trade agreements are or are not good for America is a question that has long been the focus of public debate, a debate that is unlikely to end anytime soon. But there is good reason for Congress to be wary about giving the president the authority to reach a trade agreement that will affect countless Americans without leaving room for the legislative branch to make any changes.