Obama is wrong about 'fast track' trade policy

Story highlights

  • American workers blame trade deals like NAFTA for the loss of good manufacturing jobs
  • Sally Kohn: Obama wants "fast track" trade authority, which would remove important checks and balances
  • Fast track would benefit big businesses at the expense of workers and our economy

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)During the 2004 presidential election, I spent time near Canton, Ohio, trying to turn out votes for John Kerry. I visited neighborhoods around the struggling Rust Belt town, knocking on doors and repeating a campaign-prepared script about Senator Kerry's plans to put the middle class back on track.

The voters scoffed at me, surveying their decaying porches with the decaying economy all around them. They blamed trade deals, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the loss of good manufacturing jobs in the area, and laws giving steel and auto plants the chance to move jobs overseas. One after another, each voter reminded me that both parties supported the crappy NAFTA deal that got us into this mess. How could we trust any of them to get us out?
Sally Kohn
A decade later, just after the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, President Obama is marking the disastrous legacy of free trade policies by working with Republicans to push for even more bad trade deals that would benefit big businesses at the expense of America's economy and workers.
    President Obama has outlined an ambitious agenda to help the middle class. But his eagerness to find some area of compromise with Republicans in the form of trade policy risks undermining all his other plans.
    "I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair," President Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night as Republicans stood and applauded while Democrats rightly stayed in their seats.
    Trade promotion authority is a new synonym for "fast-track authority" which would give the president authority to negotiate international trade agreements on his own. Congress could veto such deals, but could not amend or filibuster them. Fast-track trade authority removes important checks and balances not only in our legislative process but in our economy as a whole. This is a bad idea for two reasons.
    In recent history, trade deals enacted by Washington have been bad for American workers and our economy. President Obama and Republicans promote trade deals as good for economic growth and job creation. "Ninety-five percent of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities," President Obama said.
    However, government data analyzed by the nonprofit Public Citizen shows that under two decades of fast-track trade agreements, U.S. trade deficits have gotten worse -- increasing by over 440%. Nearly 5 million U.S. jobs -- 1 in 4 manufacturing jobs in America -- have been lost since fast-track deals like NAFTA and related agreements.
    While President Obama has emphasized that he wants to reduce income inequality, numerous studies say such trade deals have contributed to the rise in income inequality. In fact, wages in the United States have remained mostly stagnant, adjusted for inflation, since the mid-1970s — when fast-track trade authority was first enacted -- even though worker productivity has doubled in the same period.
    All of this suggests we need more scrutiny on these trade deals, not less. Given the evidence of the destruction of previous trade deals, we need giant caution signs, speed bumps and roadblocks -- not a fast track.
    The other problem with fast-track trade authority is that it allows our trade negotiators to unilaterally undermine democratically passed legislation. For instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation deal championed by both President Obama and top Republicans in Congress, is not really about trade.
    Of the partnership's 29 chapters, only five address trade issues. The other chapters do things like create new monopoly patent extensions for pharmaceutical companies that would raise medicine prices for average Americans, and create a right for foreign firms to import food to the U.S. exempt from our current food safety standards.
    The Trans-Pacific Partnership would even restrict certain "buy local" and "buy American" initiatives -- in other words, preventing American consumers from protesting the trade deal with their own votes and wallets.
    I should add that this is what watchdogs think is in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal -- because of document leaks. We don't know for sure, because while 600 private corporations have been involved in negotiating the terms of the trade deal behind closed doors, even Congress won't get to see the terms of the deal until after it's signed. That's why many Democrats oppose the deal, and similarly disastrous trade deals like it.
    If more crummy job-killing trade bills are what comes from bipartisanship, I would rather take more bitter acrimony.