Trade agreements: A matter of conscience

Edith_Rasell.jpgMay 2015. This month Edie Rasell, UCC Minister for Economic Justice, looks at our international trade agreements, fast track legislation, and our faith call to allocate our collective resources responsibly and sustainably.

Edith_Rasell.jpgTrade agreements affect hundreds of millions of people and the environment. As neighbors to people around the world and stewards of the planet, we must be especially vigilant when these laws are being written.

Over the past 25 years as globalization’s impact on our lives has expanded, so have national and international economic concerns. Income inequality has increased in the U.S. and in most other countries; despite great wealth, poverty entraps millions in the U.S. and billions around the world; and the degradation of creation accelerates. Economic globalization is certainly not the sole cause of any of these grave conditions but it has played an important role. In 2003, the UCC’s General Synod expressed concerns about globalization in a Pronouncement titled A Faithful Response: Calling for a More Just, Humane Direction for Economic Globalization.

TPP & T-TIP: What’s the problem?

Currently the U.S. is in the midst of writing two major trade agreements: the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), involving 11 other Pacific Rim nations, and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) that, in addition to the U.S., will include 28 countries in western and eastern Europe. While T-TIP negotiations started in 2013 and will probably continue for another year or two, the TPP process began in 2009 and the agreement will soon be introduced in Congress. While the exact details of the draft TPP are unknown (these agreements are written in secret), its general outlines are familiar. Leaked information has revealed that it is based on, and extends, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 1994 treaty between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that has harmed all three countries. The TPP, and all other NAFTA-based trade agreements, must be stopped.

These agreements are typically many hundreds of pages long and address a multitude of issues besides trade. Jobs, unemployment, wages and salaries, environmental protections, access to items that are under patent and copyright, agricultural policy, food safety, consumer protections, tax policy, the legality of “buy American” and anti-sweatshop campaigns, and whether our incomes will continue to become more unequal (or less) – all these issues are strongly affected by the international treaties we call trade agreements. Once ratified, these treaties will rule the global economy and our economy here in the U.S.

Negotiating and writing these laws happen through a very undemocratic process. The public is not allowed to know what is happening. Even Congress is largely excluded. After protests, members of Congress are now allowed to see the draft TPP documents but they may not share what they have read or discuss it, even with their staff. But while Congress and the public are excluded from the process,  more than 500 individuals representing corporate interests are closely involved in the negotiations. Small business leaders, family farmers, and people concerned about consumer protections, food safety, labor rights, the environment, and many other issues have little meaningful input.

To become law, these trade agreements must be passed by Congress. But Congress is considering “Fast Track” legislation that would short-circuit this safeguard. Under “Fast Track,” Congress would have 90 days to approve the trade legislation. Members could debate the lengthy bills (trade agreements typically are over 1,000 pages long) for no more than 20 hours. Congress could offer no amendments. Congressional committees could not hold hearings on the legislation to hear from witnesses about how they would be affected by the treaties. 

Why should Christians care about trade agreements?

In 2004 the international Church expressed its deep distress about the state of the global economy and the process of globalization. Meeting in Accra, Ghana, the World Communion of Reformed Churches – a fellowship of 57 million Christians in 214 member denominations located in 107 countries, a group that includes the United Church of Christ – approved the Accra Confession. The Accra Confession stated, “We believe that the integrity of our faith is at stake if we remain silent or refuse to act in the face of the current system of …  economic globalization.” 

The statement declared that our current form of economic globalization, shaped by “free trade” agreements, is distorting God’s world and God’s economy of life. This document was subsequently affirmed by the UCC’s General Synod and recommended to the whole church for prayer study and discernment.

Trade agreements that write and re-write the rules of the national and international economies need careful review by Congress and input from the public. You can still weigh in – Take action: Tell Congress to oppose “Fast Track” legislation.

Categories: Getting to the Root of It

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