Another week, another high-profile success story from the new infrastructure of the progressive movement. This time, it wasn't the Anti-Iraq Escalation Campaign but trade, and the frontlines were right here in Montana - the state whose senior senator is Sen. Max Baucus (D), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that oversees all international trade policy. Baucus has recently come around on the war, and I have congratulated him for his conversion. However, on issues important to K Street like trade, he still seems to be doing a kabuki dance - saying some of the right things, but subtly letting D.C. know that he's still considering doing Big Money's bidding at the end of the day. Specifically, Baucus used the first day of his committee chairmanship to pen an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring that he supports President Bush's request to reauthorize "fast track" trade negotiating authority - the authority that allows presidents to strip all labor, human rights and environmental protections out of trade deals, and prevents Congress from doing anything about it.
Enter State Sen. Jim Elliott (D-Trout Creek), chairman of the Montana Taxation Committee - our little state's equivalent of the Finance Committee. Working closely with national groups like the Progressive States Network and Citizens Trade Campaign and with local groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council and organized labor, Elliott powered a forceful resolution through the Montana Senate demanding Baucus use his power to outright reject Bush's fast track request. The measure passed the closely divided Senate 45 to 5 - a resounding statement.
The result today is a bit of a media flurry. CNN reported that "Congress is under increasing pressure tonight to end President Bush's so-called Fast Track Trade Authority as the Montana State Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding that Senator Max Baucus use his authority as Finance Committee chairman to deny any renewal of Fast Track." The Hill Newspaper's headline blares "Baucus Under Pressure to Reject Fast Track" while Bloomberg's national wire report headline says "Baucus Told by Montana Legislature to Oppose New Trade Measure." CongressDaily also has a hard-hitting report.
Though I've heard from sources that some Baucus staffers are screaming mad in their typical taking-it-personally and/or you-are-screwing-up-our-plan-to-sell-out way, let's be clear: this isn't about Max Baucus. No matter how much people in D.C. think America's government is their own gated community and that objective of public policy is to shower vanity on Senators and Congressmen, the truth is the public owns the American government, and the objective of that government should be representing the will of the people - and not just the people on K Street. Baucus isn't getting pressured because of some personal vendetta, he's getting pressured because he occupies the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and the workers, small businesses and family farmers/ranchers of Montana expect him to stand up for their interests. It's just that simple.
And make no mistake about it: the pressure seems to be paying off. Bloomberg's report includes a strong quote from the senator's spokeswoman saying that it is important to "give Congress a much bigger role to stand up for folks back home" - a not-so-subtle criticism of fast track's central provisions that take Congress almost entirely out of the "free" trade debate. CongressDaily's excerpt is even more encouraging:
"The surprise, some union officials say, is that the usual roles have reversed: Senate Finance Chairman Baucus is cast as the administration gadfly and potential friend of unions...business and labor sources were struck by the disparaging tone taken by Baucus at a hearing with [Bush trade officials] this month. 'Right now, Congress has no leverage except to say no,' Baucus grumbled at the Feb. 15 hearing. Baucus has continued to stress his hope that trade negotiating authority will be renewed. But he has also laid down a host of conditions. Baucus is up for re-election in Montana in 2008, and progressive activists are turning up the heat on him to prove his fair trade credentials. The Montana Senate Tuesday voted 45-5 on a resolution calling fast-track 'not necessary for negotiating trade agreements' and urging that Congress replace it with a different mechanism. The vote is part of a nationwide effort by the Progressive States Network, AFL-CIO and Public Citizen to get anti-fast-track resolutions before state legislatures."
I have no doubt that Big Money is going to be coming down hard on Baucus with its own pressure campaign on fast track - allowing president's to strip out basic labor, human rights and environmental protections from trade deals is a top priority for multinational corporate interests that want to pad their bottom line by trolling the world for the most desperate conditions.
But along with seven courageous U.S. senators who have declared they will work "aggressively" to stop fast track, a definitive statement has now been made right here on Baucus's home turf. He now knows that there is wide bipartisan opposition to his continued advocacy for "free" trade policies that are decimating our wages, our environment, our agriculture trade surpluses, and our small businesses. He also knows that if he decides to stand with Montana on this issue, we'll be there to cheer him on.
What he decides to do is anyone's guess - but thanks to the leadership of Sen. Elliott, the courage of the Montana Senate and the the support from the progressive movement, a marker has been put down that Sen. Baucus cannot ignore.