David Sirota writes that the trade deal announced 5/10 between a handful of Democratic congressional leaders and the Bush administration will most likely not mean adding enforceable labor and environmental standards into the core text of trade agreements, but instead will mean NAFTA-esque "side agreements" or even weaker "letters of understanding." The AFL-CIO labor federation at first gave qualified support to the deal that promises new language on labor and the environment for pending free-trade agreements negotiated with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea, requiring them to enforce basic international standards -- the right to form a union, the right to bargain collectively and the prohibition of compulsory or slave labor, child labor and workplace discrimination, but as the industry newsletter Inside US Trade reported that the White House is looking for ways to make sure the trade deal does not force a reopening of the trade agreements, union leaders backed off. Steelworkers issued a statement slamming Democratic leaders for deliberately keeping unions in the dark about the deal and Teamsters President James Hoffa said "Democratic leaders in Congress joined with the Bush administration yesterday to announce a trade 'deal' that sells out American workers" and promised that the Teamsters "will fight like hell to oppose this shortsighted agreement."
A clue that the deal was flawed was the applause of the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board, which said (5/15) the deal represents a major defeat for the progressive movement. Fair traders "wanted the US to abide by the core principles of the International Labor Organization" and "wanted third parties -- such as the AFL-CIO -- to be able to file trade complaints" but "they lost on both counts." The deal asks the White House "to abide only by ... general aspirations about curtailing forced labor and the like, rather than specific legal obligations." International tribunals, which have the power to overturn US local, state and federal environmental and consumer protection laws when corporations file suits, will "have no power to alter US law" when similar complaints are brought up on labor concerns.
The Hill newspaper on 5/11 reported that John Engler, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, "said the deal would not bind the US to more detailed ILO convention" standards. This claim about the central tenet of the much-touted deal echoes a similar assurance by the US Chamber of Commerce's Tom Donohue.
The Business and Industry Council -- the group that represents mid-sized domestic manufacturers -- condemned the deal. "The 'New Trade Policy' compromise announced yesterday by House Democratic leaders, House Republicans, and the Bush administration will become a simple sell-out of US producer and worker interests if not quickly accompanied by more fundamental changes in America's global trade strategy," the group said.
Sirota, who followed the secret trade deal at workingassetsblog.com, said the exchange of "letters of understanding" would be a potentially weaker route than even the NAFTA side agreements, which proved to be unenforceable because they were not written into the pact's core text. This approach is sure to raise the ire of many fair trade lawmakers in Congress. On 5/17, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said at a press conference that they want to push for new benchmarks in future trade agreements to measure their success and allow Congress to review any agreement in any five-year period. Brown said, "If the plan is to offer side deals, then nothing new is on the table except a $5 Rolex." Brown, author of the book The Myths of Free Trade, ran his successful 2006 Senate campaign against lobbyist-written trade deals. Sirota noted that Brown is considered one of Congress's top leaders on trade, yet was kept in the dark about the details of the deal.
In a 5/21 speech on the Senate floor, Brown criticized the "backpedaling by the administration and sidestepping by supporters of the deal [that] indicate that we may be in for another round of more of the same in our trade policy." Brown said, "voters in my State of Ohio and across the country sent a message loudly and clearly in November demanding a new direction, a very different direction for our nation's trade policy." He added that the new outline appears to rely on the good faith of the administration to enforce standards. "Given this administration's abysmal record on enforcement, relying on blind trust isn't just foolish, it is downright irresponsible."
In a 5/18 interview with PBS's Nightly Business Report, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) defended the trade deal and lashed out at those raising questions about its secrecy and its potentially unenforceable nature. Reuters noted that the deal was the result of "months of closed-door negotiations" and that "Rangel offered no apology" for such secrecy. Addressing the Democratic congressional critics of the deal, Rangel said the only thing he would do differently would be to "ignore a lot of people that really were just wasting my time." Rangel told PBS that the trade deal increases the chances for renewal of presidential fast-track authority. Specifically asked about the "confusion" over the deal's implications for fast-track, he responded, "No confusion, it makes the path easier." On CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight (5/21), Dobbs asked Rangel whether fast track will be renewed, and Rangel responded by saying "I think not" -- an apparent reversal of his statement to PBS just a few days before, though later in the Dobbs interview he left open the possibility of passing a temporary fast track renewal so that Bush could negotiate at the Doha trade talks.
In the Dobbs interview, Rangel publicly contradicted top Republican congressional leaders and the White House, who are saying the deal does not require them to put labor and environmental standards in the core text of trade agreements, and instead allows them to relegate those standards to unenforceable, NAFTA-esque "side agreements" or "letters of understanding." Rangel said, "That's 100% wrong ... What we agreed to was really to labor and environment will be have to be put into the agreement." He insisted that "the government has agreed to open them up and put it in."
As of 5/22, the draft legislative language of the deal remains secret. Inside US Trade reported that Democrats are delegating responsibility to the White House to finalize those drafts for submission to the full Congress.
The Korea Herald reported that South Korean negotiators would not renegotiate their recently-concluded bilateral free trade agreement with additional labor and environmental provisions, saying, "the Korean government firmly says renegotiations are out of the question."
House Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.) said that the Peru trade agreement -- whose text also is being kept secret -- would have to be changed and approved by Peru in a legally binding way, but "in a way that does not require Peru's political system to revisit the deal all over again."
Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) took the trade deal off the 5/15 Democratic Caucus agenda but the caucus finally got a chance to discuss the deal on 5/22. Some members reportedly blistered Rangel, who later told reporters, 'The more people find out what's in it, I'm confident that ... it's going to work out," at least for the pacts with Peru and Panama. Of the hostility, he said, "The unhappiness is concentrated, but fortunately it's a small group."
Leading environmental groups Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club issued a joint statement on 5/15 saying that "although last week's agreement reflects progress on environmental issues in the Peru and Panama FTAs, it is not a sufficient template for trade agreements generally or for presidential trade negotiating authority." The groups said the secret trade deal "will still provide foreign corporations the right to directly attack public health and environmental measures, and will not fully protect environmental laws from other trade challenges." Sierra Club President Carl Pope wrote that the entire debate shows "just how far trade agreements had migrated from any reasonable balance." He said, "These deals have not been about free trade for some time, but about trade managed for the benefit of multinationals."
Washington Post columnist David Broder (5/17) praised the secret trade deal, whose language he hadn't seen. Broder asked whether congressional Democrats will renew President Bush's "fast-track" trade promotion authority, which Broder wrote is the "same free hand that [Bush's] predecessors have enjoyed." But Media Matters for America noted that, in fact, President Clinton was deprived of "fast-track" trade promotion authority for the majority of his time in office. The authority expired in 1994 during Clinton's first term and was not renewed by the Republican Congress until 2002 -- after Bush entered the White House. Sirota noted, that was precisely the time that America experienced a much-vaunted economic boom.
Sirota also noted that former Clinton administration economic adviser Gene Sperling, one of the champions of free trade deals like NAFTA and China PNTR, has a new Bloomberg News column praising Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rangel for making the deal in a way that emulates the tactics of Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the 1980s, who was convicted of mail fraud in 1994. Sperling says nothing about the fact that the legislative language of the deal remains secret, instead applauding the "amazingly bipartisan news conference" to announce the deal. Oddly, he cites the Clinton-era Jordan Free Trade Agreement as a model for a pact that "included enforceable labor standards" even though just the preceding week US Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) took to the Senate floor to show how those standards were unenforceable. "Last year there were findings of sweatshops operating underneath the umbrella of a free-trade agreement with supposedly strong labor standards is in Jordan," Dorgan said. "The Government of Jordan has taken some steps to try to fix some of these problems. Is that because our US trade officials tried to enforce the labor provisions in the trade agreement? No. It's because a labor rights group called the National Labor Committee exposed these problems. ... So it's not the labor standards in the trade agreement that got the Jordan government to start to do the right thing." Nonetheless, Sperling concluded his piece by urging Rangel to continue triangulating against the majority of his party in Congress as he pushes the deal.
John MacArthur, author of The Selling of Free Trade, told Bill Moyers in an interview on PBS (5/18)that the motivation for the handful of Democratic leaders who cut the deal with the White House was cash. "This is like the NAFTA campaign of the '90s," MacArthur said. "[It is] an attempt by the Democratic leadership -- in those days it was the Clintons --- to raise money from Wall Street."
REID SHORTENS RECESS. After recent abuses of recess appointments by President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to call the Senate into session just long enough to force the president to send his nominees to the Senate for confirmation. According to US News, Reid plans to hold a "pro forma" session every 10 days, tapping a local senator to preside. Dems were outraged in April when Bush took advantage of the brief Easter recess to appoint objectionable Republican donor Sam Fox, who had contributed to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as ambassador to Belgium, Susan E. Dudley, who had headed the anti-regulatory Mercatus Center at George Mason University, to oversee federal regulatory policy at the Office of Management and Budget, and Andrew Biggs, an advocate of privatizing Social Security, to be deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Scholars noted that Reid's ploy might not stop Bush, as the Constitution does not specify the length of time that the Senate must be in recess before the president may make a recess appointment.
SUPREME COURT AND 2008. With three moderate-to-liberal justices appearing ready to retire, the next presidential election may determine the course of the US Supreme Court for years. Replacement of Justice Sandra O'Connor last year with Justice Sam Alito produced a solid four-justice conservative bloc on many hot-button issues, with moderate-to conservative Anthony Kennedy the swing vote. Tom Goldstein, a partner with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm in Washington, D.C., writes at scotusblog.com (5/18) that John Paul Stevens, who is 87, and David Souter, who is relatively young 67 but appears ready to step down, probably will leave after the next election, regardless of who wins the White House, trusting that the Senate, if the Dems maintain their majority, would at least moderate a Republican choice. Justice Ruth Ginsburg, 74, has had health problems and might be willing to retire if a Democrat nominated her successor. But Goldstein sees no prospect that any of the "conservative" justices would require under a Dem. So a Dem president in 2009 likely would enshrine the conservative lean of the Court for the indefinite future while a GOP win could ensure a sharp turn to the right.
IRAQ FUNDS AL QAEDA. It wasn't too long ago that al Qaeda was considered cash-strapped, Steve Benen noted at talkingpointsmemo.com (5/20).But the Los Angeles Times reports that the CIA, in its unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden, has noticed that the war in Iraq is helping fill al Qaeda's coffers, with donations to the insurgency as well as kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity paying for the terrorist organization's operations in Pakistan. "Iraq is a big moneymaker for them," a senior US counter-terrorism official told the Times. (And remember, al Qaeda had no real presence in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.) As Kevin Drum wrote at WashingtonMonthly.com: "Say it with me: We. Need. To. Get. Out. The sooner the better. Our presence in Iraq is doing nothing for Iraq itself, which is doomed to sectarian civil war no matter what we do. It's actively hindering the destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which will almost certainly proceed more quickly and more ruthlessly once we leave. It's made Iran into a more powerful regional player than it ever could have dreamed of. It's produced a relentlessly worsening foreign policy catastrophe by swelling the ranks of Middle Eastern Muslims who support anti-American jihadism in spirit, even if they don't directly support al-Qaeda itself. And it's turned into a bonanza of recruiting and fundraising among those who do directly support al-Qaeda.
"In almost every way you can think of, our continued presence in Iraq is bad for Iraq, bad for the Middle East, and bad for America's own national security. I can't even think of anything on the plus side of the ledger anymore, and every additional day we stay there only makes the ledger look worse."
RECORD GAS PRICES FORCE CONSERVATION. Gas prices hit a record $3.18 the weekend of 5/20, up more than 11 cents from the previous two weeks, the Lundberg Survey reported. Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the survey, said this is the first time that her survey of 7,000 service stations topped the 1981 record high when adjusted for inflation. The price of $1.35 in 1981 works out to $3.15 in current dollars, she said. The Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980, choked off oil supplies to the global market, causing that spike in prices. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for action to break up oil companies, federal investments in conservation and "a real energy policy with teeth that ... develops a crash program of the kind of alternative fuels that our country needs and demands." Andrew Leonard of Salon.com (5/21) noted that, for the first time in 26 years, Americans are driving less, according to USA Today, which also reported (5/17) that more people took public transit last year than at any time in 49 years.
Meanwhile, economist Barkley Rosser at Maxspeaks.org noted 5/18 that the most productive part of the world's largest pool of oil, al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, is in inevitable decline. Production out of Saudi Arabia has declined about about 10% over the last two years, from over 9 million barrels per day to a bit over 8 mbpd.
GOP SEARCHES FOR MONTANA CHALLENGER. Montana Republicans appear to be struggling to find a candidate to challenge veteran Sen. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Marie Horrigan wrote at Cqpolitics.com (5/18). State Rep. Michael Lange was considered a top contender to challenge five-term Democratic Sen. Max Baucus -- until he went off on Gov. Brian Schweitzer in a tirade that quickly made its way onto the Internet. The incident took place on April 25 about an hour after Lange, then-majority leader of the Montana House, met with Schweitzer to discuss the budget. "I'm pissed off at that S.O.B. on the second floor that thinks he is going to run this state like a dictator," he told his GOP colleagues in a room that also was occupied by reporters and a television camera. "My message to the governor is stick it up your a**," he fumed. Lange later apologized to the governor and to his colleagues, but the Republican caucus in Montana's House ousted Lange as majority leader 5/15 after the special session to complete the budget was adjourned. Four-term at-large Rep. Denny Rehberg is said to be resisting GOP efforts to draft him into the race. Rehberg ran a strong Senate race against Baucus in 1996, losing by just 5 percentage points, but would sacrifice the political security he has built up since in Montana's only House seat next year were he to stage a risky challenge to Baucus. Though Montana's sizeable Republican base makes it hard to describe Baucus as safe, his seat does not appear a ripe target for Republicans looking for a pickup. Baucus became chairman of the prominent Senate Finance Committee in January in the newly Democratic-controlled 110th Congress.
AUTHOR: US OWES LOUISIANA. John Barry, author of Rising Tide, a book about the 1927 Louisiana flood, the Corps of Engineers and the disappearing Louisiana coastline, and secretary of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, in a column for the 5/12 Washington Post, noted that the rest of the US has benefited from alterations of the Mississippi River and Louisiana coastlands that contributed to the protection of the Mississippi Valley as well as petroleum production. Barry concludes:
"Despite all this and President Bush's pledge from New Orleans in September 2005 that 'we will do what it takes' to help people rebuild, a draft White House cuts its own recommendation of $2 bln for coastal restoration to $1 bln while calling for an increase in the state's contribution from the usual 35% to 50%. Generating benefits to the nation is what created the problem, and the nation needs to solve it. Put simply: Why should a cab driver in Pittsburgh or Tulsa pay to fix Louisiana's coast? Because he gets a stronger economy and lower energy costs from it, and because his benefits created the problem. The failure of Congress and the president to act aggressively to repair the coastline at the mouth of the Mississippi River could threaten the economic vitality of the nation. Louisiana, one of the poorest states, can no longer afford to underwrite benefits for the rest of the nation."
SNEAK ATTACK ON ORGANIC STANDARDS. The USDA has announced a controversial proposal, with no input from consumers, to allow 38 new non-organic ingredients in products bearing the "USDA Organic" seal, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) reported. Most of the ingredients are food colorings derived from plants that are supposedly not "commercially available" in organic form. But beer giant Anheuser-Busch is proposing to allow conventionally grown hops, produced with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, to be used in beers labeled as "USDA Organic." Also, OCA strenuously objects to the USDA's proposal to allow the use of conventionally raised factory-farmed animals' intestines as casing for sausages labeled as "organic." Adding salt to the wound, the USDA reduced the public comment period from the standard 30-60 days to seven days, ending 5/22. See www.organicconsumers.org.
CHENEY SEEKS ABSOLUTE IMMUNITY. Attorneys for Vice President Cheney and top White House officials told a federal judge 5/17 they cannot be held liable for anything they disclosed to reporters about covert CIA officer Valerie Plame or her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Washington Post reported. Cheney's attorney argued that Cheney is legally akin to the president because of his unique government role, and has absolute immunity from any lawsuit.
IS BUSH'S AMERICA A POLICE STATE? Eric Alterman writes at mediamatters.org/altercation (5/15) "Every time I return to the Jose Padilla case, I employ the deliberately provocative term 'police state' because I think it's accurate. Padilla, after all, is an American citizen. If he can be picked up off the street, held incommunicado without charge, indefinitely, then so can any of us. And if this can happen to any of us, then we do, indeed, live in a police state with no rights whatsoever. I mean, what good are rights if a citizen can be jailed without charge, indefinitely?
"So I see buried in today's Times ... that Padilla is finally getting his trial, after many efforts by the Bush administration to avoid one.
"(The government transferred him to civilian custody in Miami in 2005, just as the Supreme Court was weighing whether to take up the legality of his military detention.)
"So is America a police state? Judging by the Padilla case, the Bush administration has tried to turn it into one but has yet to succeed fully. You can apparently only hold an American citizen for five years without trial. That's not a police state, I suppose, but it sure as hell isn't a free country either."
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