President Bush signed the bill giving him "fast track" trade authority Tuesday, August 6, putting an exclamation point on one of Congress' most contentious debates this session. The decision to give Bush authority to sign trade agreements that cannot be modified by Congress (though it retains the right to a straight up-or-down vote on such deals) split not only members of the House and Senate, but also Washington's congressional Democrats.
As expected, the state's Republican House members all voted for the new powers, but Democrats were sharply divided. While both of Washington's U.S. Senators and three of its House Dems voted to give Bush fast-track authority, Reps. James McDermott, D-Seattle, Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and Brian Baird, D-Olympia, all voted against.
The fast-track disagreement shows that the debate born on the streets of Seattle continues to rage in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
Of the Washington naysayers, Baird provided the most impassioned objection. His decision to vote against was driven by his opposition to the clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) granting corporations power to override state laws. He has good reason; Washington's state legislature had voted to ban the gas additive MTBE, a known carcinogen that has poisoned much of California's water supply, but the chemical's Canadian manufacturer used NAFTA to force the state to allow usage of the chemical. Baird argued the fast-track bill strips Congress' power to amend such corporate loopholes in the future.
"Do U.S. citizens really want trade laws that allow foreign corporations to sue local governments to force them to weaken environmental or other standards?" he asked. "I believe the Congress has a responsibility to ensure that future trade negotiations guard against such provisions, yet the bill that passed purposefully excluded such safeguards."
But many business lobbyists, including those from the high-tech industry, strongly promoted the bill. In fact, TechNet, a bipartisan technology lobbying group, made passing the bill its top legislative priority, successfully wooing Washington's free-trade Senate Democrats, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.