Ron Paul's Texas Straight Talk - A weekly Column

November 17, 1997

Congress has finished for the year, but fast-track is not dead
Serious debate on presidential power derided, principle of free-trade weakened By US Representative Ron Paul
An American wit once said that every man's life or property is in danger when Congress is in session. If that's true, then America is safe at least until the end of January because Congress finished its legislative business for the year last week. But all is not closed on the issue of trade.

Besides the closure of the session, last week also saw the process known as "fast-track" derailed as it was pulled from consideration even though leaders on both sides of the political aisle - from the president and speaker of the House on down - claimed fast-track is the most important, "bi-partisan" legislation of 1997. But is fast-track dead? Hardly.

This 25-year-old process is ingrained in the political process and will not soon disappear. The imperial presidency is alive and well as Congress continues the process of ceding power to the executive branch through such processes as the Line Item Veto, administrative law, the War Powers Act, executive orders and trade negotiations. As Congress - and especially the House - reneges on its responsibilities under the concept of separation of powers, the people suffer by loosing their most important conduit to the federal government.

Members of Congress opposed Fast-Track for various reasons: some sensible, some less so. Serious proponents of fast-track claimed their support came from a dedication to free trade. Less serious supporters were swayed by political deals, threats and even pressure from financial supporters. This process is nothing new, but record offers were made to persuade Members of Congress to change their vote and support the fast-track authority - regardless of party affiliation. Making up the bulk of opposition to the authority were congressmen supporting the unions and the protectionists, really concerned only about their particular niches.

And then there were the laissez-faire capitalists, proponents of individual liberty and low-tariffs, positions held by a scant few. We opposed the fast-track authority for what it is: an unconstitutional shift of power designed to promote managed trade to benefit the politically connected. But the arguments of principled free-traders were cavalierly dismissed by the supporters of fast-track; thoughtful opposition is not allowed when it comes to violating the Constitution.

In fact, those offering reasonable arguments against fast-track were often ridiculed by proponents as "hiding behind the Constitution." Discussions of concern about damage to American sovereignty were labeled as "nutty" and derided as being tinged with "black helicopter" fever. So much for serious debate on public policy!

There are two points of interest worth noting. First, most members of the pro-fast-track movement have, in the past promoted ceding war-making authority to the UN, used taxpayer-money to bail-out big corporations, and sent ever-increasing sums of your money overseas in foreign aid to dictators. With all that, is it any wonder there has been a populist backlash, led by the very different likes of Ralph Nadar and Pat Buchanan?

Second, the fast-track backers claimed to be the defenders of free-trade, yet they have no history of ever promoting free market economics and sound money. Instead they prefer to manage a welfare state and use the mechanisms of the Export-Import Bank, the World Bank, foreign aid, and the federal reserve system to benefit their corporate friends.

So why the sudden rhetoric of free-trade to prop-up fast-track? Could it be that fast-track, the process which gave us NAFTA, has, in reality, nothing to do with free trade? Could it be that the real protectionists - the protectors of the big corporations - have realized that fast-track serves their interests by promoting a managed trade system that benefits the existing players at the expense of upstart competitors? Certainly. The ready willingness to grant exemptions to various industries and commodities during the negotiations suggests less than a principled effort to promote free and unhampered trade.

Fast-track is the solution to a non-existent problem. There is no reason why free trade - if that is really the desired goal - cannot be accomplished without existing structure. Agreements can be easily drawn up between nations in a simple, efficient fashion - with Congress' full participation. Low tariffs and free trade with any country can be accomplished with an agreement less than one page in length, it's only when protections for various industries, bonuses for certain corporations, are added in fine print that the agreements turn into novels.

The whole debate over fast-track, slow-track and trade barriers completely ignores a very simple reality: countries that impose high tariffs on the people suffer much more so than the countries hoping to export products to them.

The fast-track deliberation has had the effect, either by design or by consequence, to obscure the real need and processes for freedom in trade. While it is fortunate that for the many, varied reasons, fast-track was placed on the political shelf for the season, the set-back to those who would limit trade is only temporary. Expect them, and their rhetoric, to be back in full-force when Congress resumes legislative activity in 1998.

Ron Paul represents the 14th District of Texas. His office may be contacted at 203 Cannon, Washington, DC 20515.