Background: Trade has emerged in recent years as a more contentious issue among policy makers and the public. Formerly, trade was mostly a topic attended to by specialists. However, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) in the early 90s and the recent turmoil in global markets, the issue of trade is capturing the attention of average citizens. Trade liberalization is designed to open markets and increase general economic welfare by promoting efficiency of production and hence increasing the availability and reducing the cost of goods and services. However, trade liberalization, while it may produce job gains in some areas, can produce job losses and family and community dislocation in other areas and can also lead to environmental degradation. There is also a growing concern that trade rules may unduly benefit investors and some countries to the detriment of workers and the economies of poorer countries creating a widening gap between rich and poor. Coupled with growing international financial instability, trade has moved from being considered a technical matter to a political one.
Issues: Trade negotiations are about setting the rules nations will follow in trading goods and services. The Congress instituted a special procedure called "fast track" to allow the President to conduct trade negotiations in a more timely fashion free from undue political interference. Once a treaty is submitted to the Congress, it can only vote yes or no, but it cannot amend a negotiated treaty under fast track rules.
However, in granting fast track authority to the President, the Congress stipulates the goals and requirements for the negotiations. In effect the "procedure" of fast track " becomes "substance." The struggle over the goals and requirements is what has made granting fast track authority so contentious. In the last session of Congress, President Clinton failed to receive fast track negotiating authority. Congressional labor and environmental interests vehemently objected to the exclusion of provisions that would have provided stronger protections for workers rights and protection of the environment. This was the first time ever that fast track authority had been denied. This opposition stemmed from the experience of NAFTA, which many judged insufficient in its labor and environmental protections.
Historically, trade negotiations are conducted by trade ministers whose interests are primarily economic trade and investment. This view dominates the ethos of the World Trade Organization, which is the international body responsible for constructing the world's architecture of trade rules. But in a world where there is a growing consciousness of workers rights, of a need for increased environmental protections and of a call for increased citizen involvement, these concerns will have to be included in future trade negotiations.
The White House wants fast track authority but has recently indicated it will defer to the Senate to craft a bill. Consequently, at this time, it is unclear what the proposed bill will actually look like. In addition to the desire for fast track authority for a new round of trade talks, there are also attempts to adopt trade bills similar to NAFTA for the Caribbean Basin and for Africa. All of this legislation promises a lively debate, which calls for our timely intervention.
USCC Position: The USCC takes no direct position one way or the other on fast track because it is a procedural matter. However, the USCC does advocate clear moral criteria as a framework for the Congress and Administration to consider in drafting the trade goals for fast track. The USCC's concern is primarily to protect those most directly affected by trade impacts -- the poor and vulnerable, ordinary workers, their families and the environment. As part of an international Church, the USCC is deeply concerned about how trade pacts affect the welfare and human rights of millions of poor people and disadvantaged countries. The USCC position views worker rights and environmental protections as priority concerns and not marginal issues.
Therefore, protections for workers and the environment should be principal negotiating objectives with appropriate sanctions and enforcement mechanisms in any trade legislation.
Specifically the USCC supports measures that:
- establish a priority concern for the poor and rights of workers. Trade deals should improve the living standards of everyone, particularly the poor, in all affected countries. This means promoting trade that creates jobs with a living wage and benefits and safe working conditions and protects the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Enforcement measures should be strong enough to prevent unjust treatment of workers and environmental degradation.
- support displaced workers and communities both in this country and others. Trade has winners and losers, but we have special obligations to help U.S. workers, their families and communities to cope with the dislocations that trade agreements may bring about. Our concern for human rights leads us to promote similar assistance for dislocated workers and families in all other countries affected by trade agreements.
- form part of a broader agenda to promote equitable and sustainable development rather than simply regulate trade and investment. A sustainable and integral human development approach is based on the genuine needs of people, particularly the poor, and fosters the preservation and protection of the environment. Also, the agenda must include relief from the crushing debt burdens of many countries and foster the type of development that increases social and economic self-reliance and broad participation in decision making.
- protect the right to emigrate. The church's strong support for people forced to emigrate for political and economic reasons includes promoting an investment and trade regime that can alleviate those economic, social and political conditions that give rise to a need to emigrate.
For further information contact Barbara Kohnen (202) 541-3153, Gerry Flood (X3167) or Walt Grazer (X3182).