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Slowing the free-trade bulldozer

Slowing The Free-Trade Bulldozer

Mark Engler

November 30, 2006

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus. He can be reached via the web site Research assistance for this article provided by Sean Nortz.

Long a bipartisan crusade in Washington, “free trade” is now set to face some overdue opposition. And there’s no better time to start the rumble than in the lame duck session of Congress.

The impetus for the new fight around trade, of course, is the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections. Many aspects of globalization politics have changed since the Democrats were last in power and Bill Clinton was president: Negotiations at the World Trade Organization, which drew massive protests in Seattle in 1999, have collapsed. Financial crises in East Asia and Argentina have discredited some of the central tenets of neoliberal corporate globalization. And the vision of a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas has been blocked by a new, feisty generation of Latin American leaders that is increasingly willing to stand up to Washington’s bullying.

But one of the most interesting changes may have taken place within the Democratic Party itself. During the 1990s, the White House tried to create broad agreement around “free trade” and reshape the Democrats as leaders in promoting corporate globalization. President Clinton, after all, was the person who shepherded passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, helped oversee the birth of the WTO, and advanced FTAA negotiations-in the process alienating traditional progressive constituencies in labor and environmental movements. Unconcerned, he and the Democratic Leadership Council proclaimed the creation of the New Democrat, centrist and corporate-friendly.

The problem is that “free trade” has always come with a cost. In this country, the cost in outsourced jobs and undermined labor standards is borne by working people-those who are light on inside-the-Beltway connections and can’t afford a staff of corporate lobbyists. Likewise, in the global South small farmers and impoverished families are far more likely to suffer the polluted landscapes and sweatshop workplaces produced by unregulated development than are jet-setting elites who vacation in Miami. Neoliberalism has failed to deliver the economic growth that it has regularly promised, and the benefits it has created have disproportionately gone to the wealthy few.

Signs Of A New Consensus

Today, the Democrats who have taken back control of Congress have an opportunity to chart a different course for the global economy. Undoubtedly, they will reject the Bush administration’s bellicose unilateralism in foreign affairs. But supporting a more democratic globalization involves going one step further: It requires them to reject a return to the “free trade” boosterism of the Clinton era and forge a new consensus in favor of fair trade policies that value small producers, workers’ rights and the environment.

Early signs of such a consensus have started to appear in past weeks. Even before being hit by electoral losses, Bush administration allies had intended to sneak several trade agreements through Congress during the lame duck session. This hasn’t gone as smoothly as they had planned. When President Bush visited Vietnam the week before Thanksgiving, he hoped to bring with him news of Congressional approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with that country-a measure that would have served as a stepping stone to a free trade deal and an endorsement of Vietnam’s entry into the WTO. It didn’t happen. The bill failed to secure the two-thirds majority it needed to pass, with many emboldened Democrats rallying to defeat it. The New York Times declared that the vote, which was supposed to be an easy victory, instead signaled "a deep disappointment and embarrassment for the White House."

Next up on the Bush administration agenda is the trade agreement that it brokered with Peru. In recent years, as the negotiations in multilateral venues like the WTO have stalled, the U.S. has increasingly focused on advancing its globalization agenda through bilateral, one-on-one trade deals with other countries. The White House currently has at least a half dozen of these agreements in the works. It dreamed of getting quick Congressional approval for some of them this month-the Peru deal first and foremost.

The contents of the U.S.-Peru accord will be familiar to all those who have the displeasure of examining NAFTA and CAFTA. They include lax protections for the natural world (the Sierra Club decries “weak and unenforceable environmental provisions”), as well as provisions that allow businesses to sue if local clean air or public health guidelines interfere with their ability to make money. Safeguards for Big Pharma’s patents (which are protectionist measures by any economic standard) are sanctified in the agreement-even though groups like Doctors Without Borders have warned that this will deprive impoverished patients in Peru of life-saving generic drugs. Nevertheless, “free trade” advocates, willfully oblivious to the contradiction, denounce any hint of protections for workers’ rights as hopelessly backward and economically detrimental.

Fortunately, like the Vietnam legislation, the Peru agreement is running into some newly erected roadblocks. Last week, 16 Congressional Democrats wrote to the U.S. trade representative demanding that the deal be re-negotiated to include stronger labor standards. Prominent among the lawmakers was Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who is the incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee-the body responsible for vetting trade deals.

Compounding White House woes, the legislators also called for better safeguards in a pending free trade treaty with Colombia. Long under negotiation, this agreement was signed by the Bush administration immediately before Thanksgiving. Trade officials hope to have it ratified early in the new year. But Congressional opposition to the deal has been bolstered by groups like the AFL-CIO, which point out that Colombia is the most dangerous place on earth to be a labor organizer: upwards of 2,000 union leaders have been murdered since 1991. On their own behalf, representatives of the largest union Colombia have denounced the trade deal as “economic annexation” and have joined U.S. allies in demanding a treaty re-negotiation that would guarantee better conditions for workers.

Political Realignment

The murky fortunes of the Vietnam, Peru and Colombia deals point to an important change. The center of gravity around trade issues has been slowly shifting in the Democratic party throughout the Bush years. An increasing number of legislators have been won over to populist economic positions that show greater concern for the well-being of working people and less for increasing CEO salaries. As a result, trade debates have grown increasingly contentious. In a key showdown in the summer of 2005, the Bush administration pushed CAFTA through Congress with the narrowest possible majority-217 votes to 215-and only prevailed after spending weeks making lavish pork-barrel promises in order to buy off reluctant legislators. A scant 15 Democrats ultimately supported the deal.

When the new Congress convenes, votes in favor of corporate globalization will be even harder to come by. In an excellent post-election analysis, the public interest watchdogs at Global Trade Watch documented a major political realignment. Their report tracked seven senate races and 28 House contests in which fair trade advocates ousted “free trade” incumbents or won open seats previously held by “free traders.” In contrast, only one fair trade incumbent was unseated. Prominent progressive winners include Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an outspoken critic of corporate globalization, and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who joined an Ohio union delegation on the streets of Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests and has since authored a book debunking the “Myths of Free Trade.”

The Global Trade Watch report argues, “One need look no further than the massively successful fair trade campaigns in key presidential states-Florida (Tim Mahoney), Iowa (Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack), New Hampshire (Paul Hodes, Carol Porter Shea), and Ohio (Sherrod Brown, Ted Strickland)-to understand that the electoral and political impact of trade is huge... and will have serious implications for both the 2008 presidential race and the future course of U.S. trade policy.”

A Miami Herald headline summed it up even more succinctly: “Democrats won big by opposing free-trade agreements.”

Whether the wave of revulsion against corporation globalization will propel a lasting change in Democratic policy-making will depend largely on figures like Rangel, incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is set to be chair of the Senate Finance Committee. These party chiefs may not be “free traders” like Bill Clinton, but neither are they leading fair trade activists like Brown and Sanders. Each has mixed record on trade issues; both Pelosi and Rangel voted in favor of the Vietnam trade legislation, which may yet be revived in coming months. Moreover, each of these senior Democrats has made rhetorical gestures toward bipartisanship since the election.

More conservative officials at the Democratic Leadership Council hope that these overtures will morph into permanent middle-of-the-road stances. But this is not the kind of “moderation” that the rest of us should regard as a virtue. More exciting, and more laudable, would be if the Democrats come out swinging, taking down trade agreements that fail working families and clearing the way for a globalization built from the bottom up.

 source: TomPaine