Oregon's Divide Over Fast Track Trade

By Benjamin Gerritz of Portland, Oregon. Benjamin is a board member with Oregon Fair Trade Campaign.

There is currently an intense battle underway in Congress over trade policy and a process known as Fast Track. This fight is creating a deep divide within the Democratic Party including among Oregon’s delegation. On one side are Oregon’s progressives, Representative Defazio and Senator Merkley. Joining Republican Greg Walden on the other side of the aisle are Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Kurt Schrader. With the Senate having recently voted in favor of a Fast Track Bill, the vote now moves to the House. These votes, cast either for or against this Bill, have significant implications for Democrats as well for the future of Oregon and our country.

Fast Track is a process whereby Congress votes to defer its constitutional authority on governance of international commerce to the executive branch. Applied to trade agreements, Fast Track means that when the terms of an agreement come before Congress for a vote, the vote is subject to a simple yay or nay vote devoid of any amendments or substantive debate. Fast Track previously expired in 2007. Congress is deciding on a Bill for possible renewal of Fast Track as the United States is currently negotiating two massive NAFTA-style free trade deals encompassing 60% of the globe’s GDP.

The current Bill to renew Fast Track, recently approved by the Senate on a largely Republican vote, was devoid of a number of proposed amendments. Among the amendments rejected: one brought forth to resolve currency manipulation and another to enforce standards in countries practicing forced labor. One thing that did make it into the Bill was how the Senate proposed to pay for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA): funds used to support American workers who will lose their jobs as a result of free trade agreements. The Senate Bill includes $700 Million for TAA through cuts to Medicare. Oregon’s Senators were divided with their votes. Wyden joined a small number of Senate Democrats voting in favor while Merkley joined the majority of Senate Democrats voting no.

Senator Merkley, in his testimony about Fast Track on the floor, cited deep concern over what Fast Track of more NAFTA-style trade deals would mean. Referring to NAFTA and the WTO, Merkley stated, “We lost 5 million jobs, we lost 15,000 factories. If you go around Oregon you can see these lost factory sites.” In referring to Fast Track, Merkley expressed concern over ramming through more massive free trade deals with countries where workers make pennies a day in, “Slave-like conditions.” This approach to trade, Merkley illustrated, results in multinational corporations offshoring more US and Oregon jobs.

As the vote moves to the House, Blumenauer, Bonamici, and Schrader have all signaled support of the Fast Track Bill. Defazio is signaling he’ll join Merkley as he recently stated, “Supporters of this bill will tell you it’s better than fast track deals of the past with protections for workers and the environment—don’t take the bait. It reinforces the same failed trade policies of the last 20 years that have earned multi-national corporations record profits and shipped good paying American jobs overseas.” Rep. Defazio’s statement can be backed up in the numbers. An Economic Policy Institute report released in December of 2014 ranked Oregon number one for US jobs lost to trade. From 2001 to 2013, 62,700 Oregon jobs were lost or displaced, equal to 3.67 percent of total state employment. While Oregon’s TV airwaves are being plastered by an ad from the group, Oregon Jobs Through Trade, stating how beneficial Fast Track will be for Oregon the evidence from similar free trade deals has proven to the contrary.

Environmentalists, public health advocates, internet freedom activists, and food and water safety groups have joined Oregon’s labor unions in opposition to the Fast Track Bill. With so many in opposition, a yes vote (as well as Representatives’ statements of support) for Fast Track is coming along with public accountability measures. Recently, fair trade activists launched an effort to recall Wyden citing he doesn’t represent the people of Oregon, 73% of whom oppose Fast Track according to a Democracy for America poll. In a national poll conducted by the US Business and Industry Council 62% of respondents stated they opposed Fast Track. Blumenauer’s statements in support of the Bill have also drawn fire from Friends of the Earth who launched an ad citing the dangers fast tracking bad trade policy poses to our environment.

While the fight over Fast Track is waged, 2016 approaches. 2016, when voters will be deciding on our next President as well as whether to re-elect Wyden and Oregon’s current Representatives. Democrats likely remember the sea of red that swept over our country (that was stopped in Oregon) in the 2014 mid-terms. The reasons for the 2014 shift to greater Republican control were multiple. One thing analysts frequently cited was many Democratic voters stayed home on election day not wanting to cast votes for candidates unwilling to stand up for a fair shot for working families. So with the majority of Americans and Oregonians opposed to Fast Track, the stakes for our members of Congress are as high as for the workers hanging in the balance.

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