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David Sirota Headshot

Congress's Imminent "Free" Trade Brawl: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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As I've said for a long, long time now, in the new Congress the battle is going to be fierce and nasty over "free" trade (read: trade deals that are filled with protectionist measures for corporate profits but free only of protections for human beings). Like forces preparing for war, we have seen in the last week the trenches being dug by both sides, and incredibly - when the congressional Democratic leadership isn't helping the K Street crowd dig its trench, it's preening around on the battlefield like a sitting duck. Here, in the extended entry, is the good, the bad and the ugly of the upcoming fight over "free" trade.


Last week, Democrats and Republicans joined forces in the Montana State Senate to demand that Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D), chair of the Finance Committee, reject President Bush's request for "fast track" trade authority - the authority that lets the president strip labor, human rights and environmental provisions out of trade deals. The move was amplified through major coverage by CNN, Bloomberg News and the Hill Newspaper, and followed the release of a letter by seven courageous senators saying they will "aggressively" work to defeat fast track, and following a major op-ed by myself and Wall Street luminary Leo Hindery demanding Democrats reject "fast track." In the face of this pressure, Baucus - the ardent "free" trader who last year went to India to trumpet job outsourcing - has been changing changed his language for the better on trade, offering up harsher and harsher criticism for the Bush administration. Though he has not said he opposes fast track, his new posture is encouraging.

Following on this success, major labor and farm groups have announced national campaigns to defeat "fast track" and force Congress to reform America's trade policy to address labor, human rights and environmental concerns. This happened at the same time The Hill reports that freshman Democrats - many of whom won by campaigning against "free" trade - demanded a meeting to discuss trade with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY).


The likely reason these freshman have demanded the meeting with Rangel is because, as National Journal has reported, fair trade advocates are "growing increasingly uncomfortable with the tone taken by Rangel in his dealings with the White House on trade." The New York Democrat hasn't said he supports "fast track," but he has dangled the possibility that he will consider supporting it in front of K Street lobbyists - all while holding major corporate fundraisers.

Meanwhile, as the Buffalo News's Doug Turner reports, at the very end of last week the Senate Democratic leadership convened a Capitol Hill forum on trade exclusively with the coalition of lobbyists and huge multinational corporations pushing fast track. This is the same coalition President Clinton and his chief NAFTA strategist Rahm Emanuel (now a U.S. House member) worked with to ram NAFTA through Congress. Representatives from labor, human rights, agriculture and environmental groups were not invited to the Democratic forum.

Finally, I am hearing rumblings from a number of sources on Capitol Hill that people like New York Rep. Joe Crowley - one of K Street's best friends, despite his working class district - is directing not-so-subtle threats of retribution at junior congressional Democrats who signed a recent letter demanding Democratic leaders get serious about reforming our trade policy.


That gets us to this week's story in the New York Times which leads off reporting that "When the Democrats swept to victory last fall, after a campaign fueled partly by attacks on President Bush's trade policies, trade deals promoted by the administration seemed doomed in the new Congress. But that was then." Translation: Election 2006's mandate may, in fact, be out the window.

While the article highlights important rhetorical changes among Republicans in the form of a new willingness to at least consider basic labor standards in trade deals, it nonetheless suggests a mushiness on the part of Democrats in really demanding a major change in trade policy.

As this battle turns ugly, the questions will be very simple: Will the labor, environmental and human rights community play real hardball with the Democratic Party by demanding the Party reject "fast track," by rewarding its congressional Democratic champions and by punishing those Democrats who sell them out? And will the coalition of fair trade Democrats use all their power to stop "fast track" and reform our trade policy, or will they back down to pressure from K Street and Wall Street's free market fundamentalists like Bob Rubin, who want Democrats to merely perform a "kabuki dance" on trade while continuing the status quo?

The "fast track" debate requires Democrats only to stop reauthorization - rather than pass something through the Congress, meaning all they have to do is use their power in the Senate to block the initiative. Thus, the answer to these questions is the answer to the question of whether we really are at a turning point in trade and globalization, or whether we are going to continue careening down the path of higher trade deficits, lower wages, eroded environmental protections, and all of the other negative consequences of an economic race to the bottom. If Democrats stand up, we may truly be entering a new day of global economic policy. But in Washington's pay-to-play culture where Democrats' House majority leader brags about his K Street project and where Democratic staffers are regularly cashing in to become high-paid corporate lobbyists, that's a big if indeed.