Over The Dead Bodies … Again
It is mere months after Democrats won the election on a promise to defend America's middle class. The nation demands action to address burgeoning health care and environmental crises. But somehow, the first significant initiative the newly empowered Democratic Party is likely to pass into law is a lobbyist-written trade pact to help Big Business ship jobs overseas.
Quick: Am I talking about the early 1990s or the present day?
Back in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton chastised the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at events with blue-collar workers. A year later, President Clinton joined with Republican and Democratic legislators to ram NAFTA through Congress "over the dead bodies" of those same workers, as the chairman of American Express gushed at the time.
We all remember what followed. Factories were boarded up, thousands lost jobs, wages stagnated, income inequality exploded, 19 million Mexicans were thrown into poverty, and "the dead bodies" didn't come out to vote during the next election, helping the GOP evict Democrats from Congress in 1994.
Now comes the rerun.
In 2006, 115 Democratic congressional candidates — many from conservative districts — made opposition to NAFTA-style pacts a centerpiece of their campaign. They promised to reform America's trade policy. But this month, to the horror of these recently elected fair traders, senior Democrats like Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., are joining with Republicans, the White House and corporate lobbyists to champion trade deals that actually expand NAFTA.
The proposed pacts with Peru, Colombia and Panama are designed to force Americans into another destructive wage-cutting competition with desperate foreign workers just as BusinessWeek reports that "many countries south of the border are building up their outsourcing infrastructure." But that's just the beginning.
According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, the Peru deal weakens American laws that ensure taxpayer-funded contracts do not subsidize outsourcing.
The Colombia agreement, which is being pushed by former Clinton administration officials-turned-lobbyists, rewards a government that helps execute union organizers, according to the Washington Post. Today, more unionists are killed each year in Colombia than in the rest of the world's countries combined. Suppressing unions keeps Colombian wages low. With the benefits of a free trade agreement, those low wages will be more easily exploited by outsourcers.
Then there is Panama — a country that is far more than a canal or a Van Halen song to the super-wealthy.
Trade expert Peter Riggs reports that the tiny tax haven houses more than 400,000 corporate subsidiaries — most used to hide money in a country that flouts international financial disclosure standards.
Ignoring rising protests from their more junior fair trade colleagues in Congress, Democratic leaders claim the pacts will aid impoverished workers abroad. But major labor leaders in Peru, Colombia and Panama oppose the deals, and not one respected U.S. human rights, religious or anti-poverty group supports them. These are pacts that only tax lawyers, union-busting thugs and Washington politicians could love.
Democratic leaders say the deals include labor provisions protecting American workers. But as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's president told reporters, he has received "assurances that the labor provisions cannot be read to require compliance" with minimum international standards.
It all comes back to cash. Environmental, health care and war policies divide moneyed interests. But nothing unites them like trade pacts crafted to drive wages and public interest laws into the ground. Every corporate campaign donor rallies around that, especially when politicians and the media morph the trade debate into a caricatured contest between anachronistic protectionism and enlightened internationalism, rather than what it really is: a choice between pragmatic reform and selling out.
Thus, as America's health care system fails, global warming intensifies and war in Iraq rages, the only initiative Congress seems willing to forge bipartisan consensus on is a new three-headed NAFTA, steamrolled "over the dead bodies" of voters.
As Yogi Berra might say, it's deja vu all over again — and if Democratic leaders continue down this path, they should not be surprised when another 1994-style backlash kicks them in the face.
Writer and political analyst David Sirota is the bestselling author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government & How We Take It Back." His daily blog can be found at www.workingassetsblog.com/sirota. To find out more about David Sirota and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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