December 1997, Volume 4, number 10
Fast Track Rejected -- New Hope for Responsible Trade
by John Byrne Barry
Two hours before midnight, on the second Sunday in November, the lights were ablaze on
Capitol Hill. Dan Seligman, the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Campaign director,
anxiously walked the halls of the House office buildings as President Clinton and House
Speaker Newt Gingrich continued their last-minute arm-twistings to round up the necessary
218 votes to pass the fast-track bill, H.R. 2621.
Seligman poked his head into the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Houston. Her
aide told him they had just received eight calls from Sierra Club members in Houston
urging a "no" vote on fast track. When he stopped into the office of Rep. Zoe
Lofgren (D), who represents California's Silicon Valley, her aide greeted him with a grim
look and said Lofgren was going to vote "yes" on the bill.
Other Hill staffers showed him faxes or stacks of messages from Sierra Club members in
White Plains, Kansas City, San Francisco and Miami. By the wee hours of Monday morning,
Clinton realized he was five votes short. After a few hours' sleep the president withdrew
the bill, marking the first time in 50 years that Congress -- and the American
people -- had turned back a major trade initiative.
"This is a huge victory for environmentalists and labor, and it's a loud
wake-up call to President Clinton," said Seligman, "but it won't stop trade or
trade agreements. It just means that labor and environmentalists have won the right to sit
at the table with Fortune 500 CEOs to write the rules of the global economy."
The Clinton administration had been seeking fast-track authority to negotiate new trade
rules including an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to South America
and a new set of investor rules called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. (See
November Planet for more comprehensive coverage.)
The president can still pursue trade deals -- he has struck more than 100
trade agreements without fast-track authority since 1994 -- but he will not be
able to push through big multi-nation trade deals without giving Congress the opportunity
to amend them.
"This win allows us to work for responsible trade that protects the
environment, communities and working families," said Seligman. Rep. Dick Gephardt
(D-Mo.), who led the anti-fast-track forces in the House, has said he will sponsor a trade
bill that would require other nations to enforce their own environmental and labor
standards or face sanctions.
Clearly, the labor movement -- with its message that one-sided trade
pacts threaten jobs and wages -- carried the big load in this battle. But
labor representatives consistently included environmental protection as a reason for
opposing the trade bill. And in congressional districts where the Club focused its
resources -- regions where the economy has traditionally benefited from trade,
but environmental values run deep -- the environmental message helped carry
One such area was San Francisco, where Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) sparked a last-minute
surge of environmental opposition to fast track by declaring her position just days before
the scheduled vote. Reflecting growing constituent anxiety about the environmental impacts
of corporate-led globalization, Pelosi reversed a 10-year record of support for free-trade
causes. "I cannot support a fast track which does not include environment as a core
issue," she said. "Those who relegate the environment to secondary status are on
the wrong side of the future."
And in New York City's northern suburbs, Rep. Nita Lowey (D) all but sealed fast
track's fate by declaring her opposition the day before Clinton withdrew his legislation.
That morning, the local newspaper published a letter to the editor opposing fast track by
volunteer George Klein, chair of the Atlantic Chapter's Lower Hudson Group.
"We must ensure that our trade policies address labor, environmental and
food-safety issues," said Lowey. "This fast track fails that fundamental
In addition to Pelosi and Lowey, Seligman applauded Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Bill
Luther (D-Minn.), Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), Sue Kelly (D-N.Y.) and Adam Smith (D- Wash.) for
taking a stand against fast track. He also thanked Club activists who pitched in over the
past three months -- speaking at rallies, lobbying representatives, writing
letters to the editor, organizing phone banks. "We won because we kept fighting till
the end," he said.
For more information: Contact Dan Seligman at (202) 675-2387; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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