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A partisan 215-214 majority in the House of Representatives has approved its version of the trade fast-track bill, H.R. 3005. Now, the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., will take on the major challenge of fixing the bill by bringing bipartisan balance to its current one-sided approach. Fast-track legislation creates the path to put trade agreements into effect. When foreign and U.S. negotiators finish multiyear trade talks, Congress must then both ratify the agreements and, more important, pass the implementing measures for necessary changes in U.S. law. In those implementing bills, Congress must harmonize the desires of foreign business for easier access to the U.S. market with the American public’s sensitive concerns about health, safety, environment and labor matters, and about the danger of predatory foreign trading practices. Any version of fast-track binds Congress to forgo some debate and the amendment of such implementing bills. But some fast-track versions forgo too much: They straitjacket Congress into surrendering more of U.S. self-governance to foreign and multinational business than it ought. In H.R. 3005, House Republicans wrote a highly slanted version that makes only feeble gestures toward the American public’s concerns and cuts Congress out of a meaningful role in controversial changes to the U.S. legal system. Foreign and U.S. negotiators are meeting periodically to work on a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), aiming by 2005 effectively to extend NAFTA to all of Latin America. Even more than NAFTA did, the FTAA will raise enormously sensitive issues. These include border security problems, the safety problems of ill-maintained foreign trucking fleets on U.S. highways and environmental fears about the trend toward destruction of the vital Amazon rainforest. Many such issues will get papered over and disregarded if H.R. 3005 effectively arms foreign trade negotiators largely to ignore Congress. Similar problems will occur in the negotiation process launched last month in Doha, Qatar, to create a vastly expanded World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement in 2004. The Doha conference made progress on some issues, but it gave short shrift to labor and environmental concerns. Moreover, foreign businesses engaging in predatory trade practices such as dumping goods won a big victory in Doha. They made the U.S. pledge to weaken its legal structure to combat such predatory trading practices — a pledge that would be redeemed, under H.R. 3005, without Congress even having the right to amend the foreign-negotiated dismantling of U.S. law. VULNERABLE SECTORS MAY SUFFER U.S. sectors particularly vulnerable to foreign dumping and subsidies, such as steel, textiles, other manufactured goods and some agriculture, may suffer as a result. Negotiations on trade inevitably involve some such losses, but the FTAA and WTO portend unusually intense economic pain for regions and communities hard hit from the recession. If such American health, safety, environmental, labor and regional economic interests must occur, only a balanced bill, retaining at least a minimal congressional role, will keep the benefits from going disproportionately to foreign and private interests and keep the burdens from falling too heavily on those who can least bear them. Predictably, bill supporters now will mount a lavishly funded campaign to rush the measure along into a nonpublic conference committee where they exert maximum leverage. Baucus must strive to uphold the public interest in this difficult moment. New FTAA and WTO agreements are years away. The Senate has time to listen to public concerns before starting to write a sound bill. H.R. 3005 contrasts with balanced bipartisan bills that combine fast-track with safeguards for sensitive public concerns. A balanced bill does so by meaningfully enforcing congressional objectives and consultation roles at trade talks by a credible threat to derail unacceptable deals from the fast track. Balanced bills preserve congressional committees’ ability to rewrite implementing measures that would excessively dismantle U.S. domestic law. If the fast-track enthusiasts are ready to discuss meaningful bipartisan compromises, then the Senate committee can work out a balanced version. In the form that narrowly passed the House, H.R. 3005 is not ready for prime time. Charles Tiefer is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former solicitor and deputy general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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