David Sirota is the author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government—And How We Take It Back. This article originally appeared on SirotaBLOG.
Thursday, May 10th was a whirlwind day on the political frontlines in the War on the Middle Class, as a handful of senior congressional Democrats and the White House—cheered on by K Street lobbyists—joined forces today to announce a “deal” on a package of trade agreements that could impact millions of American workers and potentially calls into question the entire election mandate of 2006 (I say potentially because the full details are still being concealed by both Democrats and the White House). You’ll notice the irony of the deal with just a glance at the front of the New York Times business section—the deal was agreed to (though its details have still not been made public) on the very same day the U.S. government reported another widening of America’s job-destroying trade deficit.
Because so much has transpired yesterday, I’m going to summarize it here chronologically in bullet points to make it easier to digest. I’ve been covering it live all day, but figured for brevity it would be best to put it in one place. For context, remember that, as Public Citizen has documented and as business publications like Forbes Magazine has confirmed, Democrats won their congressional majority in 2006 thanks to scores of challenger candidates specifically running against lobbyist-written trade policy. This 2006 lesson is particularly important to Democrats who, in the early 1990s experienced their own president campaign for office opposing unfair trade deals, then ram NAFTA through Congress “over the dead bodies” of workers, then watch the Democratic majority get decimated in the following election. I want to stress, we still don’t know the details of the deal, but we do have some critically important information to analyze.
Here’s the timeline of Thursday the 10th:
- Mid-afternoon, six populist, fair-trade Democrats author a letter to the House Democratic leadership demanding a full Democratic caucus debate over a secret trade proposal that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) have been negotiating with the White House. This proposal has been kept ultra-secret even from fellow Democratic lawmakers, much like the Cheney energy task force. The negotiations have coincided with Baucus and Rangel forming a joint corporate fundraising PAC, and with Baucus’s International Economic Summit, where the lineup of speakers demanded Baucus support more free trade pacts and ignore the Montana State Senate’s resolution urging him to stop such pacts in the future. The letter from the populist Democrats follows similar earlier letters of concern from rank-and-file Democrats.
- About an hour after the letter is sent, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has refrained from taking a position on the secret negotiations, sends out word of a major press conference that would be held at 6pm EST with herself, Baucus, Rangel, Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Bush Trade Representative Susan Schwab. The press conference is to announce a “deal” whereby these senior Democrats agree to support a package of pending trade deals with Peru, Panama, South Korea and Colombia, supposedly in exchange for major reforms to these trade deals, including the addition of strong labor and environmental protections. The press conference is sponsored by the New Democrats - the group of Democrats that have historically supported lobbyist-written trade pacts and that was instrumental in passing the credit card-industry-written bankruptcy bill. No progressive Democrats appear at the press conference.
- Immediately after the press conference, the New York Times reports that Pelosi, Rangel and Baucus appear to be cutting a “deal” with Bush that the majority of Democrats do not support “Despite the endorsement of Rangel and Pelosi,” the Times wrote, “many Democrats say that half or more of the Democrats in Congress may vote against the deal.” The Times also notes that the deal “paves the way” for Congress to grant Bush’s request to reauthorize fast track authority—the authority that allows presidents to eliminate basic labor, human rights and environmental protections from trade pacts. The Associated Press soon reports that “a half-dozen House Democrats with strong labor ties, watching the news conference from the back of the room, later expressed strong dissatisfaction” with the deal and the process used to make a deal. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) says, “The strongest voices for workers and the environment were not included” in the negotiations and were not informed of the deal. Similarly, Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) says, “I’m very disappointed that Speaker Pelosi held a press conference before meeting with the caucus. In a democratic process Democrats ought to know.” None of the stories include any comment from representatives of labor, human rights or environmental organizations.
- Both a news release from Pelosi and a document sent to Capitol Hill staffers from Baucus’s Senate Finance Committee about an hour after the press conference trumpets new labor protections in the deal, but does not say that multinational unions will be able to go to courts to demand enforcement of labor laws—a key privilege multinational corporations currently have in working to dismantle federal and state consumer protection, environmental and labor laws at a cost of at least $1.8 billion to U.S. taxpayers.
- An hour after the press conference, the Associated Press reports that Rangel says the trade deal was designed by those who “didn’t want the U.S. trade representative to be a lobbyist just for U.S. businesses.” The same AP story reports that several of Washington’s most powerful corporate lobbying groups offered effusive praise for the deal.
- About an hour and a half after the press conference, the Financial Times reports that “the terms of the deal are still being finalized…Democrats were on Thursday resisting making a commitment to seek the passage of a pending trade agreement with Colombia. The Colombian pact has been singled out because of government links to right-wing death squads, the high level of political violence, and killings of trade unionists. The exclusion of Colombia is a setback for the administration…Business lobbyists were less than enthusiastic about the administrations’ concessions, which were a sign that the tremendous influence of corporate lobbyists over trade deals had been weakened slightly.”
- Two hours after the press conference, Agence France Press newswire reports that, in fact, the deal includes Colombia and that K Street is cheering the pact because the labor protections are apparently weak. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and Republican Party bigwig Tom Donohue tells AFP that he is “encouraged by assurances that the labor provisions [in the deal cannot be read to require compliance with ILO Conventions.” This shocking revelation, which undermines all of the claims made at the press conference, is somehow not reprinted nor probed by any other major media outlet.
- Three hours after the press conference, the House Ways and Means Committee issues a press release that includes a quote from Republican Rep. Wally Herger saying that the deal apparently includes assurances of passage of fast track. “We now have a way forward on Panama, Peru, Colombia, South Korea and even reauthorization of TPA,” Herger says. The New York Times final story for tomorrow’s paper is posted online noting that Rangel is now, for the first time, publicly agreeing to support an extension of fast track. He justifies his new position by claiming he believes the upcoming Doha trade talks are designed to help poor people in the developing world - an assertion that flies in the face of a recent Tufts University report that says exactly the opposite. The full details of the deal still have yet to be released.
- Five hours after the press conference, the Washington Post reports that “Thea M. Lee, the legislative policy director for the nation’s largest confederation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO, said last night she could envision no scenario that would win labor’s approval for a trade deal with Colombia.” Lee has been quoted just hours before by Reuters saying the AFL-CIO could not support any deal that allowed the United States to avoid being forced to comply with international labor standards. Because the deal’s details have still not been released, it remains unclear whether unions will, in fact, be given the ability to sue in international courts for the enforcement of labor protections—the same ability corporations currently are granted in trade pacts to sue in international courts to eliminate state and federal environmental/consumer protection laws that cut into corporate profits. The AFL-CIO, like other major union, environmental, human rights and consumer protection organizations, has yet to issue a formal statement on the deal.
- Five and a half hours after the press conference, the Hill Newspaper reports that K Street lobbying groups are trumpeting Baucus, the Senate’s key player in the deal. “It is hard to argue that Max Baucus or others have not been receptive to the business agenda,” says a top official of the Business Industry Political Action Committee.
- Six hours after the press conference, Washington Post business columnist Steve Pearlstein, one of the leading opinionmakers on trade issues, declares the deal to be a “major achievement” even though the full details of the deal have yet to be released. Pearlstein’s declaration flies in the face of an article he wrote less than a year ago urging Democrats “to take [free trade] hostage” and not “give away the store.” His article appears to be the pundit class’s starting gun to trumpet the deal, much as the pundit class provided a cheerleading section for NAFTA and the China free trade pact.
Here’s some more important details. According to my Capitol Hill sources, most Democratic lawmakers still have not seen the language of the deal. These sources also tell me that while Rangel originally promised organized labor that he would not agree to a deal without a process for labor to review the language, at the moment of Pelosi’s press release, labor leaders were in the midst of a conference call to discuss the deal and had not yet provided final input. Furthermore, sources tell me that a group of Democrats in vulnerable seats who had campaigned for office opposing further NAFTA-style free trade expansion informed Pelosi’s office early in the day of their concerns and were assured that the Speaker did not have an official position on a deal.
I want to reiterate, we have not yet seen the details of this deal. While the secrecy and this information aggregated in this dispatch certainly raises very serious concerns about what the White House and this handful of Democrats are trying to hide, we have to reserve final judgment on what the deal ultimately means until these players decide to disclose their deliberations to the American public.
Nonetheless, there are very real reasons to be concerned. During NAFTA and China PNTR, this same kind of secretive process unfolded, with the same politicians declaring that the deals were all about helping American workers and the same media outlets behaving as stenographers for such declarations - all while the details were concealed. The bottom line is clear: If this deal sells out the American middle class—as many longtime fair trade Democrats in Congress seem to fear - it will require a massive grassroots pressure campaign to demand Democrats respect the 2006 election’s fair trade mandate and back off.
Continue checking back to this blog for more. During live coverage of the press conference yesterday, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight specifically referenced the reporting on trade being done here on the Working Assets blog, and I will do my best to keep updating the situation as more information becomes available.