news feature
June 1, 2007




Democratic leadership trade deal with Bush administration attracts criticism
by Tom Bogdon

In March, NBC and The Wall Street Journal conducted a poll asking Americans: Do you think free trade agreements between the United States and foreign countries have helped the United States, have hurt the United States or have not made much difference? Forty-six percent of respondents answered U.S. trade agreements have hurt this country. Only 28 percent said these agreements have helped.

Congressional observers have noticed that, while the unpopular Iraq War was the major factor in the takeover of both houses of Congress by the Democrats, another voter concern was the Bush administration’s heavy emphasis on more free trade agreements. One example is President Bush’s long-stated goal of creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which has been referred to as “NAFTA on Steroids.”

One new Democratic member of Congress, Nancy Boyda of Kansas’ 2nd District, told eKC online, “Free trade means ‘free’ only in the sense of ‘unrestricted.’ It does nothing to guarantee freedom to foreign workers, nor decent pay, nor adequate environmental protections. We need to instead negotiate new, fair trade agreements that globalize the American economy while respecting both American jobs and foreign workers.”

On May 10, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Chair Charles Rangel announced a deal with the Bush administration on trade. It followed months of closed-door negotiations between Ways and Means leaders and the White House that excluded most Democratic House members and most Democratic Party base groups. The hastily announced deal has not obtained support from any labor, environmental, consumer, family farm, faith, small business group or other Democratic base groups.

According to an analysis by the Citizens Trade Campaign, reactions among interest groups have ranged from overt opposition (Teamsters, Change to Win Coalition, Public Citizen, IATPAction, R-CALF and U.S. Business and Industry Council) to those who are reserving judgment until the general policy statements that now constitute the deal are translated into actual trade agreement text (Steelworkers, AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Justice. Machinists, and Boilermakers). The deal has received uniform support from big business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Larry Weiss, executive director of the Washington-based Citizens Trade Campaign, characterized the proposed deal this way: “While the deal potentially reflects progress on certain labor and environmental concerns, and while the legal text, once written, may produce significant advances regarding labor and environmental standards in free trade agreements, we are baffled and dismayed by the rush to announce this deal, particularly as it is not even clear that the Democratic leadership and the White House actually do agree.”

Weiss pointed out that questions remain concerning the agreement. Those include what countries are covered by the deal, how (and if) labor and environmental standards are included in the agreement and whether the deal will require full enforcement of International Labor Organization core standards.

“There is a real danger that President Bush could use this deal as the pretext for seeking an extension or renewal of ‘Fast Tract’ negotiating authority while many concerns about the impacts of the current U.S. trade policy model remain unaddressed and unresolved,” Weiss said, noting that the current Fast Track, also called Trade Promotion Authority, expires June 30.

“And why,” Weiss asked, “was it so important to conclude a deal that, according to Chairman Rangel, most House Democrats will oppose?”

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who was in the House in 1993 when NAFTA was pushed through Congress by business lobbyists and President Bill Clinton, called the deal in a May 21 speech on the House floor a “New Version of NAFTA”.

“…Congress is now faced with a so-called new trade policy with regard to Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea,” Kaptur said. “But this deal is not a new direction for trade; it’s a variation of the same old theme.

“We have seen how NAFTA has sucked a million good jobs out of our country and ruined millions of lives in Mexico and driven so many desperate illegal immigrants across our border,” Kaptur continued. “We have seen how so-called free trade with a closed and manipulative China has led to soaring deficits, increasing outsourcing of our jobs, and how lax labor and environmental standards in Asia and around the world have created a race to the bottom. Tainted Chinese food is not just being sent here for our pets, but for our people.”

Kaptur said the May 10 trade policy announcement does not make any major changes to the trade regimen the U.S. has been following for the last 15 years. She said the existing policy does not aim at yielding a more balanced set of trade accounts for our country or even try to open the closed markets of the world. She said the existing policy does not fix agreements that aren’t working to our advantage or even attempt to be fair to both sides.

Kaptur said this “NAFTA replica” presents a non-binding list of requests that has the “illusion of enforceability,” but actually sacrifices more of the American middle class to global investors.

Kaptur added that she applauded her congressional colleagues who are working hard to change the NAFTA trade model to make it thorough, to make it fair, to make it a balanced situation for the American people, and to treat the people of the Third World with respect.

“I look forward to participating in genuinely reshaping the future of international trade to reshape jobs being created here at home and the economic policies that are so vital to the future for our people in order that they can move into the middle class again, rather than falling out,” Kaptur said. “We have a long way to go.”

Another voice on the national stage for a thorough overhaul of U.S. trade policy is Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Mishel testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in January, referring to the EPI’s Agenda for Shared Prosperity report.

“The specific changes we recommend for dealing with trade begin with what my colleague Jeff Faux has called ‘a strategic pause’ — halting negotiation and approval of trade agreements until Congress and the President agree on a strategy to cut the trade deficit, increase U.S. competitiveness, prevent further erosion of wages, and provide an effective safety net for Americans,” Mishel said. “This strategic pause is critical because the more we trade under present conditions, the larger the current account and trade deficits grow and thus the more damage we do to working families….”

In the Midwest, Craig Volland, Trade Committee Chair of the Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter, told eKC online: “While the agreement between the Democratic leaders and the administration does include some improvements to environmental protection, we still have a long way to go before we reach the level of environmental protection that is needed.

“The Sierra Club strongly opposes renewal of Fast Track authority, and it would be completely inconsistent for the Democrats to agree to hand over more power to the Executive Office at a time when the Bush administration is arbitrarily assuming more and more power that belongs to Congress under the Constitution,” Volland said.

Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies, a joint project of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Longview Community College, also believes that fundamental changes in existing trade policies are needed before consideration is given to renewal of Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority.

“I thought we voted in November of last year for a significant change in our trade policy,” Ancel said. “A significant number of people elected to Congress had run on a platform that supported such changes. But now we see the Democratic leadership is focused on making the same deal with the devil that Clinton made when he forced NAFTA through Congress in 1993.

“I can’t understand why Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel are trying to craft a majority by allying with Free Trade Republicans and ignoring Fair Trade Democrats, unless it’s all about campaign contributions from Wall Street,” Ancel continued. “This sounds like another Democratic Leadership Council bad deal to me.”

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at


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