It is worth examining how the process was rigged to push that budget deal through Congress over the weekend that contained Citibank-written derivative deregulation and all kinds of other goodies for the rich and powerful. That’s because the “cromnibus” formula will be formalized in the next big deal, in a process called “fast track.”
Congress passed the “cromnibus” (continuing resolution for omnibus budget) right at the deadline for another government shutdown. (After they extended the deadline, actually.) The budget contained a Citibank-written provision that undoes some Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations. It authorizes a cut in many people’s pensions by up to 60 percent, severely cuts the IRS budget and its ability to collect taxes, dramatically expanded the ability of big money to influence elections, reduced the EPA’s authority, and included many other provisions that could not have passed in the light of day. This budget “deal” was pushed through Congress using a rigged process that kept representative democracy from stopping it.
What lessons can we learn from the way the “Citibank” provisions in the budget deal were pushed through? How do these lessons apply to the next big fight?
Fast Track: The Next Big Fight
The next big fight in Congress will be about getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) passed. TPP is a huge “trade” agreement that goes far, far beyond what most people understand as trade.
The TPP is currently being negotiated in secret, using a process designed from the start to end up with a corporate-favoring agreement. We know from leaks — and from the results of other “NAFTA-style” agreements — that the agreement elevates corporations above the laws of sovereign countries. TPP will prioritize the profits of giant, multinational corporations over the rule of law. For example, TPP will allow tobacco companies to sue governments for implementing anti-smoking initiatives — and those suits will be heard in corporate courts, with corporate lawyers acting as the judges.
After the budget, Congress’ will push to pass “fast track” legislation, to grease the skids for the TPP. Fast track trade promotion authority rigs the legislative process, essentially pre-approving “trade” deals like TPP before they are even finalized — before members of Congress even know what is in the treaties.
Fast track is an extremely unusual legislative process that only applies to trade deals. With fast track, Congress agrees to set aside its constitutional duty to carefully review (and fix) trade deals. Among other things, Congress agrees not to amend the agreement, not to filibuster it, and gives itself only 90 days after first seeing the agreement to approve the agreement. The argument for doing this is that it keeps Congress from “meddling” with the secretly negotiated agreement — a process otherwise known as “democracy” and “transparency.”
Fast Track Formalizes Rigged Process That Passed CRomnibus
Look at what happened with the budget. A massive, 1,600-page budget deal was negotiated in secret, and announced 51 hours before the shutdown deadline. The debate was about stopping a shutdown, instead of what was in the bill. (Democrats who voted for the Citibank Budget were held up as heroes for averting a shutdown.) Congress had to vote on it right away, or the government would shut down. There was no time for Congress to even read the 1,600-page agreement, let alone fix anything. There certainly was very little time to rally opposition to items in the agreement.
Here are the lessons learned about how to rig a legislative process:
- Control who is at the table. The deal was negotiated with Republican House and Senate Democrat leaders. It is significant that Minority Leader Pelosi was not at cromnibus negotiating table.
- Leave little time to analyze the consequences. The 1,600-page deal was “announced” at the last minute. By the time the public began to learn what was in it, Congress was all ready to vote.
- Make it about the deadline. The deal was announced only 51 hours before the shutdown deadline. The debate was about “Will they shut down the government?” instead of “Will they vote against the Citibank provisions?”
- Allow special interests served by the deal time to prepare push-through strategy in advance. Supporters will have their forces lined up before the opposition even knows what’s coming. Every step of the way, pro-democracy forces faced an uphill battle, not even knowing there was a battle until almost the last second.
- Make it all or nothing. With the budget battle they couldn’t take the Citibank and other bad provisions out without killing the entire “deal” and starting over. The TPP process already rigs the negotiations by controlling who is at the negotiating table. With fast track, Congress actually agrees to make this rigged process into a formal legislative process that essentially pre-approves trade agreements. With fast track Congress agrees:
- To vote within 90 days of first seeing what is in the agreement. This means there is little time to read and analyze what is in the agreement. It gives opposition no time to reach the public, explain what is in the agreement, and rally their forces. It makes the vote on the agreement about meeting the deadline, not about what is in the agreement.
- Not to amend or otherwise try to fix the resulting agreement in any way. Congress votes on whether to “make or break” the agreement, and not about what’s in the agreement, or how to make it better.
- Not to filibuster the agreement. Even though there have been well over 400 filibusters since President Obama took office, with fast track Congress agrees in advance to surrender the filibuster. Senators who actually have time to read and understand the agreement will not be able to delay a vote, to buy time to get the word out to potential opposition.
The big corporations are gearing up right NOW to launch a massive PR campaign when TPP is ready. They are planning it NOW, and will spend millions to ramp up the pressure. It will be on the scale of the “run up” PR campaign to launch the Iraq war. But potential opponents will only see the treaty after it is done. Ninety days is not enough time to read it, evaluate it, analyze the potential consequences of obscure provisions, and then if necessary to get the word out to rally forces and build public pressure against it.
So passing fast track is really about pre-approving TPP, before they ever even see what is in TPP. Just like how we didn’t know what was in the cromnibus until it was too late to do anything about it.
Image Credit: www.citizen.org
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future’s Blog for OurFuture. It was also featured on December 17, 2014 on Seeing the Forest, a website featuring commentary by Dave Johnson, frequent public speaker and talk-radio guest and a leading participant in the progressive blogging community. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Johnson.