Last week Congress started to inject just a bit of sanity and morality into the discussion about proposed trade agreements with Colombia, Peru, Panama, and South Korea. A congressional proposal, whose full text has not been publicly released, would seek to incorporate labor standards, and some recognition of environmental concerns and poor countries’ right to generic lifesaving medicines, into trade agreements.
It’s a great start – but the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Charles Rangel, is signaling that he thinks Congress can work out a deal with the White House on those trade agreements soon, possibly as early as this week. That accelerated timetable is a spectacularly bad idea: There’s no way that the agreement texts, which are deeply flawed, can be fixed in so short a time. Here are a few reasons why:
1) In trade agreements, the devil is in the details. Who knew, when NAFTA was being considered, that a single phrase among the text’s hundreds of pages would give corporations the right to sue governments when health and environmental laws affected profits? (Hey, overworked congressional staffer – what part of “tantamount to expropriation” did you not understand?) It’s great to talk about labor, the environment, and essential medicines in a press release, but you can’t put all that in enforceable trade-agreement writing in a few weeks.
2) The congressional press release doesn’t mention many important problems with the current trade agreement model, including conventional trade agreements’ devastating effect on other countries’ small farmers (many of whom will be pushed to undocumented migration or coca farming in order to feed their families).
3) Current trade agreements are the result of a deeply flawed process, in which corporations get privileged input into negotiations, while advocates for the poor are shut out. No last-minute deal between Congress and the president can represent all the voices that need to be at the table.
So keep all of those affected by trade agreements in your prayers and thoughts – and watch for Sojourners’ special issue on trade justice, released next month!
(Note: Unlike normal bills, trade agreements are rejected or approved by Congress after they are negotiated by the executive branch; the fact that the president has signed the trade agreements with Colombia and Peru simply means he has sent them to Congress, not that they are a done deal).
Elizabeth Palmberg is an Assistant Editor for Sojourners.