Changes to Free Trade Legislation raises concerns for Maine Businesses

The Obama Administration is quietly indicating its intent to change the way federal trade agreements are approved and speed up trade deals, but at the risk of hurting businesses here in Maine. Officials are signaling the possibility of introducing new legislation that would give the White House so called “fast-track” trade negotiating authority.

Under fast-track rules, a trade agreement must receive an up-or-down vote in both chambers, without amendment, within 90 days of being submitted by the White House. No trade agreement submitted under those procedures has ever been rejected by Congress. Fast-track authority is considered useful for U.S. negotiators because it gives foreign governments confidence that Congress will not try to amend a deal after negotiations are completed.

These potential changes to free trade rules follow ongoing negotiations on several trade agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement with several Asian countries including Singapore, Vietnam and Japan. Negotiations around the TPP have been marred by secrecy including holding closed door meetings only accessible to industry insiders from transnational corporations. Several of these transnational corporations, including those in extractive industries, have pushed for provisions that would enable them to challenge virtually any new law, regulation or even court decision that affects their expected profits through international tribunals that would circumvent domestic judicial systems.

The results of a trade agreement with Asian countries as part of the TPP could have an impact right here in Maine. The remaining New Balance shoe factories in Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan would be severely affected by the expansion of cheap labor markets in countries like Vietnam. Representative Michaud has supported policies that would keep these factories open and has worked closely with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, a strong proponent of free trade, even inviting him to Maine several times to tour the factories. However, Kirk has signaled he plans to step down from his position as President Obama begins his second term.

Both the resignation of Kirk and the push by the Obama administration to fast-track trade agreements have raised serious concern about the future of trade agreements and their impacts on Maine businesses. MPA is working with our partners to make sure that our elected officials are working in the best interest of Maine businesses as they consider legislation like fast-tracking in the New Year.