Unions, environmentalists and trade activists praised a trade agreement signed by President Clinton and King Abdullah of Jordan on Oct. 24 that for the first time commits the two nations to safeguard worker rights and the environment. The agreement includes labor and environmental standards as part of the main text, essentially putting the rights of workers to form unions or the duty of companies not to pollute rivers on the same plane with tariffs, the New York Times reported.
The accord requires both sides to fully enforce their labor and environmental laws so that companies cannot gain a trade advantage by ignoring them. Any disagreements about labor practices could be addressed through a dispute settlement process and could potentially result in penalties. The provisions related to the environment are similar. Other "free trade" agreements such as NAFTA have included labor and environmental standards as "side agreements," which lack binding enforcement and typically have been ignored.
The United States sells Jordan less than $300 million in goods each year and Jordan sells this country far less, the Times noted. But the Clinton administration said the accord was a new model for trade that, if implemented by the next administration, could make it easier to gain congressional approval of trade agreements.
"This is a basic and important step forward in making globalization work for working families," said John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president. "This agreement does not relegate workers' rights to second-class status."
The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups also praised the agreement. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, also said it was "an important first step" toward trade and globalization policies that benefit the public interest, although she criticized the administration's refusal to release the full agreement.
But Republican lawmakers criticized the use of trade agreements to advance a "social agenda" such as worker rights. Bill Archer, R-Texas and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told the Times, "Any effort by the United States to determine standards for developing countries would make negotiations a nonstarter." He said he feared the Jordan agreement was done for domestic political reasons.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said lawmakers were likely to support the Jordan agreement to promote Middle East peace. But he cautioned that the precedent could be harmful. "If you favor free trade you can't leave developing countries out of the process, and developing countries don't like this," he told the Times.
CONGRESS DOES LITTLE FOR CONSUMERS. Just four US senators and 32 members of the House of Representatives received perfect scores in the Public Citizen ratings of the 106th Congress. Thirteen senators and 36 representatives received scores of 0, the lowest possible. Public Citizen rated lawmakers on issues including campaign finance reform, Medicare prescription drug coverage, international trade, corporate welfare, patients' rights, fuel efficiency, nuclear waste disposal, liability protections, regulatory protections and food safety.
Three bills deemed harmful by Public Citizen became law. They were a measure to grant permanent normal trade relations to China, a "NAFTA for Africa" trade bill that will benefit multinational corporations at the expense of African countries, and legislation that limits the legal liability for high-tech companies that developed products with Y2K defects.
On the positive side, Congress made progress on campaign finance reform and a patients' bill of rights, both of which were blocked in the Senate. Congress passed a new campaign finance disclosure law for "section 527" groups and a limited auto safety law; however, these votes were not scored by Public Citizen either because they passed by an overwhelming margin or they passed on a voice vote.
The vote chart, which includes information about campaign money raised by each lawmaker, is on the Web at (www.citizen.org/vchart00/map.htm), and is searchable by member or state delegation.
FILIBUSTER BLOCKS BANKRUPTCY 'REFORM'. Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., led a filibuster that stopped a draconian bankruptcy "reform" bill demanded by banks and credit card companies. Majority Leader Trent Lott came up seven votes short of the 60 he needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate on the bill. "This is a tremendous victory of working people over special interests," Wellstone said. "The attempt to pass this bill at the last minute was a desperate strategy that was rightly rejected by the Senate. There may be more opportunities for mischief during the now-inevitable lame duck session, but I will be there to oppose this bill if and whenever it is brought up again." House and Senate Republicans used a sham conference on an unrelated State Department Authorization as a vehicle to move the stalled bankruptcy legislation, but Wellstone said this "bait and switch" maneuver contributed to its defeat because many Senate Democrats voted against cloture specifically because it treaded on the minority's rights.
HEALTH ADVOCATES TARGET CAMPAIGN FINANCE. Health Care Justice Week 2000 began unconventionally on October 14 when 16 health care professionals and reform advocates got themselves arrested in the US Capitol Rotunda to illustrate how $250 million of campaign contributions have been used during the last decade by the health care industry to stymie health care reform. As more than 100 tourists watched the event cosponsored by the Universal Health Care 2000 Campaign, a coalition of over 550 organizations, participants called for universal health care and full public funding of elections while unfurling 15-foot banners and conducting spirited readings, violating the ban on demonstrations in the Capitol.
"The fact that one-seventh of our population lacks health insurance is a moral outrage and a national disgrace," said Ken Frisof, MD, co-chair of the U2K Campaign. "The fact that this is not a campaign issue in the 2000 elections is an indictment of our political system. We know that to remedy the illnesses of our health care system we must also remedy those of our body politic," he added. Over 42 million Americans are uninsured and millions more are at risk. In the 2000 election cycle alone, the health care industry has contributed over $49 million to congressional and presidential candidates.
"These are people from all walks of life engaging in a dramatic action because they know that Congress is guided more by corporate greed than by human need," said Jim Ace, Program Director of the Alliance for Democracy. "People are angry and they're willing to put their bodies on the line. They're taking democracy back, and they'll keep coming back until real reform becomes law." For more information contact the Alliance for Democracy, phone 781-894-1179 or see (www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/).
In a related study, Public Citizen reported that the prescription drug industry spent about $230 million this election cycle on lobbying, campaign contributions and issue ads -- an amount that shattered the industry's previous records. "Most of that money will go toward protecting the drug industry's extraordinary profits and preventing consumers from obtaining affordable prescriptions," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "Moreover, the industry's campaign cash is heavily favoring Republicans who are opposed to providing prescription drug coverage directly through Medicare." See a copy of the report at (www.citizen.org/congress/drugs/factshts/campaign$.htm).
FERC FAILS CALIFORNIANS. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has concluded that California's summer-time electricity rates were higher than they should have been and that California electricity rates were not "just and reasonable," as required by federal law, but Charlie Higley, Energy Research Director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, was disappointed that FERC couldn't figure out who was responsible for jacking up electricity prices in California to sky-high levels. "In short, FERC found that California consumers were robbed of billions of dollars -- reportedly more than $5 billion. But the agency can't find the robber, and thus it can't protect the victims of the crime," Higley said. "FERC's inability to protect consumers from unlawful price gouging reveals that state electricity deregulation has created unregulated monopolies and cartels that are free to fleece consumers for billions without fear of retribution." He urged states that have deregulated their power industries to promptly reregulate them, and states considering deregulation to avoid it. For more information, see www.citizen.org or call 202-588-1000.
GRANNY D BACK ON THE ROAD. Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the 90-year-old retired secretary who walked 3,000 miles across the United States to promote campaign finance reform last year, completed her 300-mile walk across the state of Missouri in October to "show the Show Me state" how much she cared about Proposition B on the Missouri general election ballot. Prop. B would have replaced special interest financing of elections with a clean-money system such as has been approved in Maine, Arizona, Mass. and Vermont. She then traveled to Oregon to support a similar measure there. To leave a message of support and congratulations, call Stephanie at the Alliance for Democracy, 781-894-1179, or see Granny D's web site at www.grannyd.com.
CONGRESS PASSES WEAK CAR SAFETY LAW. Despite all the furor over faulty tires contributing to highway fatalities, the tens of millions of dollars showered on lawmakers by the auto industry in recent years enabled the industry to thwart consumer-friendly auto safety legislation, Public Citizen reported. Instead a far weaker measure that is potentially harmful to consumers was pushed through Congress. "This new law is a face-saving bill for lawmakers, who wanted some kind of legislation to boast about to voters back home, and not a real life-saving bill for the public," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said. "It is a sad testament to the need for campaign finance reform that the powers of persuasion marshaled by the families victimized by Ford and Firestone who came to Washington to lobby lawmakers could not match the influence of the auto industry and its allies."
Analysis of Federal Election Commission data from the Center for Responsive Politics and lobby disclosure reports filed with Congress disclosed that the auto industry has contributed $37.8 million to lawmakers since 1995, with 77% going to Republicans. The top 15 auto industry contributors have given $4 million in soft money to political parties since 1995, with 90% going to Republicans.
"The bottom line is that if you walk around this law and kick its tires, you'll find that it has flashy fenders and shiny paint but is plagued with engine troubles," said Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "The measure provides no new criminal enforcement authority. Instead, it has a meaningless provision that references existing criminal law and is unlikely to be invoked. Further, one of its provisions will actually undermine any attempt at criminal enforcement because it grants immunity to corporate executives who lie to government regulators if they later recant. What kind of consumer protection is that? None at all. We need a criminal penalty provision that will hold auto industry executives responsible for making a knowing and conscious decision to keep on the market a vehicle with safety defects that can kill or injure. This law lets the top brass off the hook. Lawmakers should write a meaningful criminal penalties provision immediately."
She added that the bill repeals a requirement that manufacturers evaluate their accident, component failure and complaint data to learn if there is a safety defect. "This kind of analysis is essential for us to avoid future Ford/Firestone tragedies, and it should be the manufacturers' responsibility to provide it. Without it, we will be forced to relive history," she said.
"After details of the Ford/Firestone tragedy came to light, lawmakers sprang to action. Unfortunately, in their haste, they passed a watered-down bill masquerading as a consumer safety measure. We call on Congress to get under the hood of this law and take care of its engine troubles now," Claybrook said. For more information, see (www.citizen.org/fireweb/index7.htm).
CORPORATE DISCLOSURES SOUGHT. US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., introduced HR 5492, the Transparency and Responsibility for US Trade Health Act of 2000. This bill would require US corporations doing business abroad to disclose information about their operations, including location and address of facilities, age and gender of employees, environmental performance, and labor practices. "Within the United States, corporations are required to report on many aspects of their business. This information is very useful to workers and to local communities. However, in overseas operations, businesses operate under an air of secrecy. American citizens have a right to know the conditions under which their products are made. I introduced this important piece of legislation in order to promote transparency and openness in US business practices. It is time we held US corporations working abroad to the same standards that we expect from them at home," McKinney said.
She noted, the TRUTH Act of 2000 does not require corporations to change their practices, only to share information with the public. For information contact her office at 202-225-1605.
DAVID BROWER DIES. As we go to press we learned of the death of the 88-year-old environmentalist who helped build the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters. We'll have an appreciation in the next issue.
SMALL FARM CONFERENCE. The Midwest Small Farm Conference and Trade Show will be Nov. 17-18 at the 4-H Exhibition Center in Noblesville, Indiana, northeast of Indianapolis. The theme is "Small Is Beautiful." The conference purpose is to present information that can help family farms become sustainable, that is, profitable, contributing to the health of ecosystems and being a key part of their community. Speakers include nationally known authors, university researchers and farmers involved in organic or reduced chemical production. For more information, contact Sustainable Earth, 765-463-9366; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
FRANKENFOOD CONCERNS. Genetic engineering makes it possible for scientists to cross apples with chickens, tomatoes with fish, and even humans with corn, manipulating nature in ways previously inconceivable, according to the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition. "Weird Science: The Brave New World of Genetic Engineering," a report by US Public Interest Research Group and the Pesticide Action Network, is available at (www.uspirg.org), along with links to contact responsible federal officials.
presents examples of combinations that highlight the differences between genetic engineering and traditional plant breeding. It also examines the unpredictability of genetic engineering, and details examples of some unexpected results that have already occurred in field tests. "Dr. Frankenstein comes to mind this Halloween with experiments that put mice genes in potatoes and cow genes in soybeans, and when corn genetically engineered for animal feed is found in taco shells," said Richard Caplan, Environmental Advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and co-author of the report. "Unless the FDA adopts mandatory testing and labeling of genetically engineered food, we are test subjects in a vast food experiment."
"Concerned consumers should visit www.StopFrankenfood.org to send a message to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to let them know that we don't want to be guinea pigs," said Ellen Hickey, Research Director with the Pesticide Action Network and co-author of the report. "These products are being forced on us with inadequate testing and since there's no labeling, we're given no choice."
Other web sites include:
* Genetically Engineered Food Alert (www.gefoodalert.org) which supports the removal of genetically engineered ingredients from grocery store shelves unless they are adequately safety tested and labeled.
US PIRG (www.pirg.org), the national lobbying office for the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs).
* Pesticide Action Network North America (www.panna.org), which advocates adoption of ecologically sound practices in place of hazardous pesticides and genetically engineered crops.