Article 1, Sect. 8. The Congress shall have power...To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes...To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
-The Constitution of the United States of America
Trade promotion authority, also known as "fast track", is a method by which Congress votes away its own Constitutional mandate to debate and approve trade legislation. Since the Congress theoretically represents the people of the United States, fast track also deprives the citizenry of the ability to assess trade agreements being made in its name.
The president may request trade promotion authority to negotiate trade agreements he or she believes to be both desperately important to pass and "too complex" to be effectively discussed in Congress. If fast track is granted, the president has agreed to occasionally "consult" with Congress and "solicit advice from advisory committees and the public", while Congress abrogates its authority to attach amendments to the agreement and must simply vote to pass or not pass the agreement as negotiated by the president.
"Why", you might ask, "would anyone in their right mind think this is good for democracy?" The short answer is that no one claims fast track is good for democracy. However, many people claim that...
...the Executive branch needs as much negotiating leverage as possible. Trade Promotion Authority will strengthen the U.S. position in trade negotiations, and help complete trade agreements, as it is a crystal-clear signal to our trading partners that the Executive branch and the Congress agree on the need to move forward on trade liberalization.
Trade promotion authority is a political tool to advance the agenda of corporate globalization. A prime example is the treatment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Depriving Congress and the people of their ability to debate trade agreements allows all sorts of massively destructive (and highly profitable) deals to be made while the populace remains entirely ignorant and unable to complain.
The current president, George W. Bush, was granted trade promotion authority in order to finalize the FTAA on August 1, 2002. Sadly, people like Robert Zoellick (the U.S. Trade Representative) have used the recent tragic destruction of the World Trade Center to make trade promotion authority a "patriotic" issue, equating so-called "free trade" with theoretical american ideals and the "war on terrorism". This equation conveniently obfuscates the issue of whether or not any agreement reached in this anti-democratic manner is actually good for not only the citizens of the United States, but the entire hemisphere and, indeed, the rest of the world.
To date, trade promotion authority has been granted six times:
http://www.brook.edu/comm/policybriefs/pb91.htm and http://www.tpa.gov