House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has just announced that she will take the unprecedented step of stripping “fast track” language from the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. This would allow the House to postpone consideration of the FTA for months – or indefinitely.
Pelosi said she will bring a procedural change to the House floor on Thursday that would remove the timetable under which Congress would have had to take up trade bills within 90 legislative days after they are received from the White House.
“The president took action” in submitting the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress on Tuesday, she said. “I will take mine tomorrow.”
Pelosi’s statement is here.
A January story from Reuters reporter Doug Palmer explained that the House Rules Committee has the prerogative to remove fast-track authority, but that doing so sets a precedent that may affect future trade treaties.
Now with the Doha round of world trade talks edging toward a possible conclusion, the fight between the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress over the Colombia deal threatens to unravel the inner workings of fast track.
On the surface, the law requires both houses of Congress to approve or reject a trade deal within 90 days of receiving it from the White House and without making any changes.
But ultimately, parliamentary experts say, fast track is a congressional “rule” for considering trade deals. Lawmakers can vote to change the procedures if they want or even exclude a certain trade agreement from fast track protection.
“The parts that deal with procedures in the House and the Senate remain exercises of the rule making power and subject to change by further rule making,” said a congressional expert on House legislative procedures.
So, if Bush submits the Colombia agreement to Congress over the objections of senior Democrats, it is possible lawmakers could create a new rule releasing themselves from the obligation of having to consider the pact.
WORSE THAN REJECTION?
In the long run that could be worse for U.S. trade policy than an outright rejection of the Colombia trade pact. It would destroy fast track as a procedure for getting trade deals through Congress, said R.K. “Judge” Morris, president of the Global Business Dialogue, a trade advocacy group.
“Once you have demonstrated that the law isn’t a law, in the sense that it can’t be tested by the courts and you can’t enforce it, then it loses value,” Morris said.