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Montana Senate moves to kill “fast track”


Montana Sen. Jim Elliott says he’s tired of seeing international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) undercut Montana farmers, take away Montana jobs and usurp states’ rights. Elliott, along with 43 of his Senate colleagues, says it’s time Congress take back its Constitutional responsibility to oversee federal trade agreements.

On Feb. 27, the Senate voted 44–6 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 17, a measure sponsored by Elliott, calling on Montana’s Congressional delegation to oppose extending President George W. Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track,” which gives the president power to negotiate free trade agreements, restricts Congress to approving or denying those agreements with an up-or-down vote and suspends its amendment powers.

“These trade agreements do not foster democracy, they do not foster open government and they do not foster the proverbial level playing field,” says Elliott, a Trout Creek Democrat.

The Montana Senate was the first legislative body in the country to pass such a resolution, and some observers say it’s a key first step toward Congress resuming its oversight of free trade deals. The resolution states, in part, “that the U.S. Congress be urged to create a replacement for the outdated fast track system,” and U.S. trade deals should be “developed and implemented using a more democratic, inclusive mechanism that enshrines the principles of federalism and state sovereignty.”

Elliott says he’s particularly troubled by trade deals that threaten to put Montana at the mercy of multinational corporations regarding everything from the state’s energy policy to country of origin labeling on imported beef.

“We can take a look at Montana’s energy policy, which requires a certain amount of green energy, and then you can look at NAFTA, which says you can’t set energy policy that restricts the international free trade,” Elliott says. “So, for instance, if Babcock & Brown [an Australian investment firm] buys NorthWestern Energy, and they don’t want to buy green energy, they can challenge the energy policy in the state of Montana.”

Elliott’s concerns are most famously embodied by a 1999 free trade fiasco in California where the state began phasing out the use of a gasoline additive called methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) after the carcinogenic chemical began contaminating the state’s aquifers. Methanex, a Canadian company that supplied a key ingredient of MTBE, challenged California’s ban under NAFTA and wanted U.S. taxpayers to compensate it for $970 million in profits it said it would lose as a result of California’s phase-out. A secret NAFTA tribunal eventually dismissed the claim, but R. Dennis Olson, a senior analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says the Methanex case is a glaring example of how a free trade agreement created under fast track has usurped the judicial powers of the U.S. Constitution.

“[NAFTA] takes the power away from U.S. courts and gives it to secret tribunals,” Olson says, adding that if NAFTA had been reviewed by Congress, the provision that created secret tribunals likely wouldn’t have stood. “Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who are experts on that body of law, would have flagged that and said, ‘This is a bunch of bullshit.’”

At least six other states are considering measures similar to SJ 17, but observers say Montana’s move is significant given Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ position on the powerful Finance Committee, which oversees trade policy in the Senate. Baucus, who chairs the committee and thus controls its schedule and agenda, can do nothing in order for fast track to expire in June. So far, however, Baucus has said he wants to work with the administration to revamp and extend fast track. (Baucus did not respond to the Independent’s requests for comment.)

Hellen Waller, a Circle wheat farmer and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, supports Elliott’s resolution and hopes Baucus follows suit.

“Congress is the body that is supposed to debate issues, and as important as fair trade is to this country, Congress needs ability to debate issues so good decisions can be made,” Waller says. “Trade will go on whether [the president] has fast track authority or not. The issue of fast track is to cut off debate. I don’t know of any issue that is so important and so urgent that they have to have an up-or-down vote and prohibit debate.”

Elliott says SJ 17 gives Baucus a “powerful tool” to do what’s best for the state of Montana in the face of mounting pressure from corporate lobbyists to reauthorize fast track. He’s hopeful Montana’s senior senator will pay attention to the clear message the state Senate is sending him.

“You know…when I carried the resolution against the reauthorization against the [USA] Patriot Act [which passed both houses in 2005], Sen. Baucus was there for the state of Montana,” recalls Elliott. “Sen. Baucus is in an extraordinarily unique position, and that position includes being able to return the power that was given to the president for fast track back in 1974, so that when Sens. Baucus and Tester say ‘We think that this particular part of this trade agreement is bad for Montana,’ they will be able to.”

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