It is often said that “money makes the world go round.” It is certainly true when it comes to passing legislation in Congress. A case in point: the Senate’s recent approval of the Ryan-Hatch Fast Track bill.
The President and U.S. multinational corporations want Congress to pass the Ryan-Hatch Fast Track bill because they know they need it to ensure passage of the Transpacific Partnership agreement. The bill not only grandfathers in fast track for the TPP but will set the terms for approval of other similar agreements such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
In the words of Public Citizen, the Ryan-Hatch Fast Track bill would empower the President to:
- Unilaterally select U.S. trade agreement partners and initiate new negotiations;
- Determine the contents of trade agreements and sign and enter into them before Congress votes to accept or reject the terms, regardless of whether a pact meets Congress’ negotiating objectives;
- Write implementing legislation containing any terms the President unilaterally decides are “necessary or appropriate” that can change wide swathes of existing U.S. law, and then circumvent ordinary committee review and submit the legislation for a vote;
- Obtain a mandatory vote in both chambers of Congress within 90 days, overriding congressional leaders’ control of House and Senate floor schedules regardless of whether a pact meets Congress’ negotiating objectives;
- Override normal voting procedures, including a ban on all amendments and limits on debate time regardless of whether a pact meets Congress’ negotiating objectives.
Supporters of the bill tout its special provisions allegedly designed to ensure accountability and transparency. For example, the bill makes it possible for Congress to strip fast track authority from a trade agreement. But as Public Citizen explains:
Instead of establishing a new “exit ramp,” the bill literally replicates the same impossible conditions from past Fast Track bills that make the “procedural disapproval” mechanism to remove an agreement from Fast Track unusable. A resolution to do so must be approved by both the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees and then be passed by both chambers within 60 days. The bill’s only new feature in this respect is a new “consultation and compliance” procedure that would only be usable after an agreement was already signed and entered into, at which point changes to the pact could be made only if all other negotiating parties agreed to reopen negotiations and then agreed to the changes (likely after extracting further concessions from the United States). That process would require approval by 60 Senators to take a pact off of Fast Track consideration, even though a simple majority “no” vote in the Senate would have the same effect on an agreement. In contrast, the 1988 Fast Track empowered either the House Ways and Means or the Senate Finance committees to vote by simple majority to remove a pact from Fast Track consideration, with no additional floor votes required. And, such a disapproval action was authorized before a president could sign and enter into a trade agreement.
Another example of the bill’s limitations: it allows congressional viewing of draft texts, something that Obama fought in the case of the TPP, but members of congress would still not be allowed to share what they learned with the press or public. And their congressional staff would need security clearance to view any draft text.
But on to the main point. Initially it appeared that there was enough opposition among leading Democrats and a few Republicans in the Senate to block passage of the bill. Then suddenly the opposition disappeared. A story in the Guardian newspaper explains what happened:
Fast-tracking the TPP, meaning its passage through Congress without having its contents available for debate or amendments, was only possible after lots of corporate money exchanged hands with senators. The US Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – the fast-tracking bill – by a 65-33 margin on 14 May. Last Thursday, the Senate voted 62-38 to bring the debate on TPA to a close.
Those impressive majorities follow months of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by the world’s most well-heeled multinational corporations with just a handful of holdouts. . . .
Two days before the fast-track vote, Obama was a few votes shy of having the filibuster-proof majority he needed. Ron Wyden and seven other Senate Democrats announced they were on the fence on 12 May, distinguishing themselves from the Senate’s 54 Republicans and handful of Democrats as the votes to sway.
- In just 24 hours, Wyden and five of those Democratic holdouts – Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dianne Feinstein of California, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, and Bill Nelson of Florida – caved and voted for fast-track.
- Bennet, Murray, and Wyden – all running for re-election in 2016 – received $105,900 between the three of them. Bennet, who comes from the more purple state of Colorado, got $53,700 in corporate campaign donations between January and March 2015 . . . .
- Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who is the former US trade representative, has been one of the loudest proponents of the TPP. (In a comment to the Guardian Portman’s office said: “Senator Portman is not a vocal proponent of TPP – he has said it’s still being negotiated and if and when an agreement is reached he will review it carefully.”) He received $119,700 from 14 different corporations between January and March, most of which comes from donations from Goldman Sachs ($70,600), Pfizer ($15,700), and Procter & Gamble ($12,900). Portman is expected to run against former Ohio governor Ted Strickland in 2016 in one of the most politically competitive states in the country.
- Seven Republicans who voted “yea” to fast-track and are also running for re-election next year cleaned up between January and March. Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia received $102,500 in corporate contributions. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, best known for proposing a Monsanto-written bill in 2013 that became known as the Monsanto Protection Act, received $77,900 – $13,500 of which came from Monsanto.
- Arizona senator and former presidential candidate John McCain received $51,700 in the first quarter of 2015. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina received $60,000 in corporate donations. Eighty-one-year-old senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is running for his seventh Senate term, received $35,000. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who will be running for his first full six-year term in 2016, received $67,500 from pro-TPP corporations.
“It’s a rare thing for members of Congress to go against the money these days,” said Mansur Gidfar, spokesman for the anti-corruption group Represent.Us. “They know exactly which special interests they need to keep happy if they want to fund their reelection campaigns or secure a future job as a lobbyist.
Now we are on to the House where opposition to the bill also exists. Lots of Representatives are no doubt licking their chops, waiting for the U.S. Business Coalition for the TPP to unlock its vault once again.