The Slate Gist

Fast Track

Congress is now debating whether to give President Clinton “fast track” authority to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries. Most of the opposition comes from the president’s own party, though some Republicans are also opposed (and others from both parties accuse Clinton of not pushing hard enough for it). What is fast track and why is it so contentious?

After the president signs a trade agreement with a foreign government–reducing or eliminating barriers to free trade such as tariffs, import quotas, and subsidies for domestic products–the agreement must be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress. Fast track is a congressional procedure limiting debate over these agreements. When the president invokes fast track, Congress must vote yes or no within 60 days, and no amendments are allowed.

Fast track is intended to thwart filibusters and to prevent members of Congress from adding special protections for businesses in their districts. The rationale for fast track is that trade agreements are different from ordinary legislation: They are negotiated with other countries. If Congress makes changes, the whole agreement must be renegotiated. Furthermore, negotiations involve swapping concessions with the other side. Other countries will not make the necessary concessions in the first place if U.S. concessions can be undone.

No other country gives its chief executive a power similar to fast track. But few other countries have a legislative branch so independent of the executive branch. Fast track exists only for trade–not for arms-control treaties or other multilateral agreements. These other agreements, like the recent Chemical Weapons Convention, are often subjected to prolonged debate and can be altered drastically by Congress. Formal treaties can only be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

B efore fast track’s inception in 1974, the president had even broader authority. Regretting the notorious Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, in 1934 Congress granted the president the power to reduce tariffs and implement multilateral trade agreements without its approval. Up until the mid-1960s, presidents negotiated many bilateral tariff reductions, attracting little attention. However, after Lyndon Johnson revoked a series of popular export subsidies, Congress resumed its complaints about the president’s powers. Anticipating further conflicts, President Nixon’s congressional allies inserted fast track into a relatively obscure section of an uncontroversial 1974 trade bill.

For two decades, Congress repeatedly voted to renew fast track, and by large margins. But in 1994, fearing a contentious debate about fast-track renewal so soon after the NAFTA battle, President Clinton allowed fast track to expire. Now that Clinton is keen on negotiating a free-trade agreement with Chile and other Latin American countries, he has requested that fast track be granted for the duration of his term.

Presidents have only invoked fast track on a handful of occasions, and each time the agreement it covered was approved. Ronald Reagan used fast track to get congressional approval of tariff-reduction agreements with Israel and Canada. In 1979 and 1994 it was used for major multilateral trade agreements. And in 1993 it was used to pass NAFTA.

Opponents say that with fast track, Congress is abandoning its responsibilities under the Constitution and giving the president too much power. They also say that the process of hashing out agreements tends to be secretive–without public hearings or any opportunity for public input. But despite fast track, Congress usually plays a major role in shaping trade agreements. NAFTA is the classic example. Congressional Democrats refused to support the agreement until the president negotiated two side agreements to make Mexico adhere to stricter labor and environmental standards. According to the 1974 legislation, if the president doesn’t keep Congress up to speed on negotiations, Congress can revoke fast track. Other provisions in the original legislation give Congress an opportunity to suspend fast track.

The current fast-track debate will be contentious. Labor and environmental groups have announced that they will use the occasion as a referendum on all free-trade accords. Attempts at compromise–amendments guaranteeing that future agreements will include provisions protecting the environment and workers’ rights–have failed to placate these groups. Earlier this month, only four out of 16 Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee voted in favor of the legislation. The chairman of the committee, Bill Archer, R-Texas, says that he might delay introducing the bill before the full House until next year, rather than risk defeat.