Fast Track was an extreme and rarely-used procedure initially created by President Richard Nixon to get around public debate and congressional oversight over corporate-rigged trade policy. Fast Track is how we got into the job-killing, wage-flattening North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Thanks to Fast Track, NAFTA and the WTO included terms that promote the offshoring of U.S. jobs to low-wage countries.
President Obama resorted to asking Congress to give him extreme Fast Track authority to try to railroad into place job-killing trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
After dogged, diverse grassroots pressure delivered major blows to Fast Track, proponents used procedural gimmicks to pass Fast Track through Congress by a one-vote margin in June 2015. Anger about Fast Track's underhanded passage helped fuel the unprecedented movement that succeeded in ensuring that there was never a majority in Congress to pass the TPP – thus sealing the deal’s demise. However, Fast Track authority remains in place for six years, and therefore we must be vigilant of attempts to railroad other corporate-rigged deals through Congress.
Fast Track empowers executive branch officials advised by large corporations to skirt Congress and the public and use secretive "trade" agreements to roll back a wide range of non-trade policies on which our families rely for safe food, a clean environment, affordable medicines, financial stability and more. It sets up a system of more than 500 official corporate U.S. trade advisors who have access to secret trade agreement texts and who have set the "U.S." trade agenda whether we have Democratic or Republican presidents.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to write the laws and set trade policy. For 200 years, these key checks and balances helped ensure that no one branch of government had too much power. But, starting with Nixon, presidents have tried to seize those congressional powers using the Fast Track mechanism.
Fast Track has only been used 16 times in the history of our nation, often to enact the most controversial of "trade" pacts, such as NAFTA and the establishment of the WTO. Meanwhile, hundreds of less controversial U.S. trade agreements have been implemented without resort to Fast Track, showing that the extraordinary procedure is not needed to approve trade agreements.
Fast Track allows the executive branch to unilaterally select partner countries for "trade" pacts, decide the agreements' contents, and then negotiate and sign the agreements – all before Congress had a vote on the matter! Normal congressional committee processes are forbidden, meaning that the executive branch is empowered to write lengthy legislation on its own with no review or amendments. These executive-authored bills have altered wide swaths of U.S. law unrelated to trade – food safety, immigration visas, energy policy, medicine patents and more – to conform our domestic policies to each agreement's requirements. And, remarkably, Fast Track lets the executive branch control Congress' voting schedule. Unlike any other legislation, both the House and Senate are required to vote on a Fast-Tracked trade agreement within 90 days of the White House submitting it. No floor amendments are allowed and debate is limited.
Because Fast Track's dramatic shift in the balance of powers between branches of the U.S. government has occurred via an arcane procedural mechanism, it has obtained little scrutiny – until recently. Its use by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to seize Congress' constitutional prerogatives, "diplomatically legislate" non-trade policy, and preempt state policy, has made it increasingly controversial.