Transparency is key to fair trade


President Barack Obama wants Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority or “fast-track authority” to negotiate the sweeping trade bill called the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Some members of Congress, including from the president’s own political party, oppose reauthorizing fast-track authority for a couple of important reasons: lack of transparency and the potential negative impact on workers and the environment.

Supporters say fast-track authority is crucial to ratification of the largest-ever trade agreement involving the U.S. They believe haggling in public could jeopardize the pact. The Catholic Church doesn’t take a stance on particular trade agreements, but examines how such agreements impact principles of Catholic Social Teaching. These principles include dignity of the person, defense of human life, protection of the environment and public health and promotion of peace and justice. It’s nearly impossible to guarantee those principles when the boardroom door is shut.

With fast-track authority, Congress votes up or down on the trade agreement but cannot reopen any of its provisions. Fast-track authority was introduced in the mid-1970s but expired twice, most recently in 2007. President Obama is lobbying Congress for re-authorization. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement itself has been in the works for some time and involves 12 partners: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., Vietnam and Japan. China could eventually be open to joining the partnership, National Public Radio reported June 3.

Opinions about the TPP and the potential impact of fast-track authority abound on the Internet, so you get a good idea of what’s at stake. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, views fast-track authority as “critical to wrapping up the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.” He says Iowa farmers, manufacturers and services, for the most part, see fast-track authority as a process and that the trade agreement would benefit Iowa. The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office gives a glowing vision of the TPP, saying it will boost U.S. economic growth, support American jobs and create growth for America exports to some of the most dynamic and fastest-growing countries in the world.


The AFL-CIO expresses frustration on its website that “Negotiations for the TPP remain closed to the public and the text of the agreement remains classified.” The AFL-CIO conjectures that TPP will be modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement, benefitting the largest global corporations at the expense of working families.

Faith-based organizations and denominations ministering to marginalized communities in the U.S. and worldwide express alarm that lack of transparency is a threat to workers’ well-being. By allowing TPP “to bypass debate in Congress through trade promotion authority, we fear that it will be difficult to enforce robust labor standards that ensure the dignity of work for all individuals in each of the 12 countries involved.” The group, which expressed its concerns in a May 15 letter to President Obama and Senate leaders, supports an amendment that it said could act as an extra safeguard for human trafficking victims. (The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 is entitled “No Fast Track for Human Traffickers.”)

Pope Francis frequently calls for economic and political action that serves humanity, and not the other way around. We can do no less. As members of the church, we have an obligation to advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized. We do this first by learning more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (type in that phrase on your Internet search engine) and then contact U.S. representatives and senators to ensure this agreement serves the common good, especially the poor.

Two years ago, Bishops Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, wrote to the U.S. Trade Representative, asking for a seat at the table to discuss the terms of the TPP. “As pastors and teachers in a global church, our experience of the impact of trade and other aspects of economic integration, their possibilities and perils, is both broad and deep.” The bishops, representing their fellow bishops, stressed the importance of such agreements being conducted in an open, transparent and cooperative manner.

Their inclusion at the table would go a long way toward transparency, and serving the common good.

Barb Arland-Fye

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