"Fast Track" trade promotion authority appears headed back to the House for what could be another tight vote after the Senate voted to protect American workers and industries from unfair foreign competition and provide aid to workers who lose their jobs because of trade.
The Senate on May 14 adopted an amendment by Sens. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to retain the Senate's right to reject provisions of any trade deal that would weaken US anti-dumping laws., despite a letter from Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick saying they would recommend the president veto the trade bill if it included Dayton-Craig. Then on May 16 the Senate added a two-year program of wage insurance for older workers who lose their jobs because of trade. On a 52-46 vote it rejected a proposal by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., for stronger labor and environmental protections. It also rejected an attempt by steel-state senators to include temporary health care assistance for retired steel workers. Pending at press time were other amendments to protect labor rights, the environment and local and state government sovereignty from "takings" lawsuits by multinational corporations but the bill is expected to get Senate approval before the Memorial Day recess. A conference committee will then work out differences with the House version and the bill will go back to the House and Senate for final approval, so contact your House member by calling toll-free 1-877-611-0063 or 202-224-3121.
Fast Track passed the House by a 1-vote margin vote last December, but some pro-business Democrats and Republicans in competitive districts may have second thoughts about supporting it again after US Rep. Tom Sawyer, who broke with other industrial-state Democrats to back free-trade measures such as NAFTA in 1993, suffered a stunning defeat in Ohio's May 7 Democratic primary. John Nichols wrote for TheNation.com that it was "a blunt signal for Democrats who side with Wall Street against Main Street." Although Sawyer voted against Fast Track last December, voters in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley who were moved into his district by redistricting this year, remembered the 1993 vote for NAFTA and chose state Sen. Tim Ryan, who wrapped himself in the banner of the labor movement. Another free trade casualty was Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who voted for Fast Track last December, then lost a March Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat after his opponent, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, said he would have opposed Fast Track.
BUSH CONSULTANT SORRY FOR D SUPPORT. Mark McKinnon, a former Democrat who led George W. Bush's media team in the presidential campaign and continues as an outside adviser to the White House, was forced to apologize for $14,000 he and his wife contributed to three Democrats out of friendship and past professional relationships, the Washington Post reported May 9. Texas Republicans and White House officials were infuriated at news McKinnon was supporting Democrats Ron Kirk, running for the US Senate, John Sharp for lieutenant governor and Kirk Watson for attorney general. McKinnon also had made favorable comments about the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Tony Sanchez. "These guys are friends of mine," McKinnon was quoted in the May 8 Austin American-Statesman. "If there's one thing this administration would understand, it's personal friendship and loyalty." Guess he got that wrong!
DRUG LAW'S UNINTENDED EFFECTS. Lawmakers are rethinking a federal law that stops students who have been convicted of drug possession from receiving federal financial aid. The Drug-Free Student Aid Provision of the Higher Education Act was passed four years ago in the hysteria of the war on drugs, but students finally started losing aid in 2001-2002. "It is a textbook case of knee-jerk lawmaking, a measure that was ill-conceived and poorly implemented," wrote Janelle Brown in Salon.com May 20. "... The provision singles out drug users and gives a free pass to those convicted of other crimes. And most importantly, the legislation effectively thwarts young adults who are trying to clean up their lives and get an education, throwing up barriers that stop them from accomplishing their goals."
Under the rule, any student who has been convicted of the possession or sale of a controlled substance is ineligible for any federal grants, loans or work assistance for periods ranging from one year for one conviction to permanently upon a third offense. A student who completes a federally approved drug rehabilitation program, and then passes two unannounced drug tests, could get the aid reinstated, but many rehab programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, do not qualify, and students convicted of a minor possession, such as marijuana, have to go through the same measures as a heroin addict. Financial aid officers at a handful of universities have reimbursed students affected by the law, but most colleges, particularly those that serve low-income and minority communities, don't have the resources to replace federal aid.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has has proposed a bill to repeal the provision; while Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who wrote and sponsored the law, is backing a bill that would restrict the disqualification of students for drug offenses to "those students who committed offenses while receiving student financial aid." Students for Sensible Drug Policy (www.ssdp.org), is coordinating students across the nation to seek changes in the legislation.
MILITARY AID GROWS WITHOUT OVERSIGHT. The Bush administration is pushing for more than $1 billion in new military aid and training, including $100 million that the Defense Department could spend secretly on foreign military aid without any congressional scrutiny and without regard to human rights conditions, according to Foreign Policy in Focus (foreignpolicy-infocus.org). The administration wants to make it harder for Congress and the public to monitor its training operations by delaying release of the congressionally mandated Foreign Military Training Report, the only comprehensive public account of its global training programs. It has also asked Congress to reduce the amount of information which is supposed to be provided in the report.
EPA CAN KEEP SECRETS. George W. Bush on May 6 by decree granted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Todd Whitman the authority to classify information as "Secret." The executive order allows Whitman to classify information as Secret or Confidential -- but not as Top Secret. The new policy reverses EPA policy over the past dozen years to operate in the sunshine, according to OMB Watch (ombwatch.org).
AFGHAN PIPELINE PLANNED. We know it's unpatriotic to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is about oil, but the BBC reports that Afghanistan plans to strike a deal to build a $2 billion pipeline through the country to take gas from energy-rich Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India. The construction of the 850-kilometer pipeline had been previously discussed between Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, US oil company Unocal and Bridas of Argentina. The project was abandoned after the US launched missile attacks on Afghanistan in 1999. Mohammad Alim Razim, minister for Mines and Industries told Reuters US energy company Unocal was the "lead company" that would build the pipeline, which would bring 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to market annually.
VOTING REFORM GIVES MINORITY VOICE. Cumulative voting helped elect a minority community activist to the school board in the Amarillo Independent School District on May 4. The voting system was the result of a 1998 settlement of a voting rights lawsuit in the Texas Panhandle city which until the late '90s had never elected a minority trustee under single-member districts, despite the fact that nearly 30% of the voting population and 40% of the school-age population is Hispanic or African American. In the first election held with cumulative voting in 2000, an African American and a Mexican American were elected. This year Janie Rivas, a veteran community activist, finished second in voting among five candidates for three open seats but ousted an Anglo incumbent who was backed by Business In Our Schools (BIOS), a powerful local political group that promotes business interests. With cumulative voting, the voter can give their favorite candidates anywhere from one to all three votes, so a minority group, by concentrating their votes, can elect a representative. Rivas reportedly was the first school board candidate to be elected in many years without a BIOS endorsement. "The eyes of the minority voting rights community were focused on Amarillo. This election was seen by many as a test of the ability of cumulative voting to work for the minority community," said Joleen Garcia of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national organization that promotes fair election systems (see fairvote.org). Amarillo is the largest US jurisdiction that uses cumulative voting and is one of 57 Texas school districts that have adopted the voting method since the Texas Legislature authorized its use for school board elections in 1995.
HOUSE PANEL OKS HOLLAND INVASION. The House Appropriations Committee recently passed a measure authorizing the president to use force to free any American detained by the new International Criminal Court, which House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, called a "rump" and a "rogue" court. After noticing that some members of the committee seemed ignorant of the court's location, Rep. David Obey, D-Minn., pointed out that "we would be sending troops to invade the Netherlands," according to Harper's Weekly (www.harpers.org). The measure also bans military aid to countries that ratify the treaty creating the court (which President Bush "unsigned") but specifically exempts NATO countries and other major allies, all of whom have ratified it.
R'S WOULD TINKER WITH FOOD STAMPS. House Republicans propose to let five states eliminate the food stamp program and instead get lump sums of federal money to feed poor people in any way they wanted under a new provision of the welfare bill. Under the proposed new demonstration project, according to the New York Times, five states could receive "block grants" to provide food assistance to needy individuals and families. The states would have broad discretion to set eligibility criteria and the amount of assistance for each recipient, bypassing federal standards that now establish uniform national policies. House members held no hearings on the proposal, which materialized when Republicans introduced the welfare bill that they plan to pass. House Republicans tried a similar proposal in 1995 but it was dropped from the welfare bill that President Bill Clinton eventually signed in 1996. Major provisions of the 1996 welfare law expire this year and the reauthorization bill includes stricter work requirements for welfare recipients. Lawmakers from farm states, including many Republicans, have opposed the idea and insisted that the federal government preserve the food stamp program as the ultimate national safety net for poor people.
GLOBAL ACTIVIST'S MANUAL, published by Nation Books and edited by Mike Prokosch of United for a Fair Economy, features three dozen organizers describing how they work with different constituencies and issues across the United States. Contributors include Naomi Klein, Elizabeth 'Betita' Martinez ("Where Was the Color in Seattle"), Colin Rajah, Chris Crass, and others who frame the challenge of race, Fair Trade organizers Kristi Disney and Larry Weiss drawing lessons from their coalitions in Tennessee and Minnesota and other case studies pf coalition-building, cross-border work, direct action, corporate and government campaigns. A "Practical Tips" section of basic organizing skills is included as well as a brief movement directory. Order single copies of The Global Activist's Manual: Local Ways to Change the World at www.faireconomy.org for $15.95 plus $6 shipping or ask your local bookstore if they have it. See www.globalroots.net for selected articles from the book.
CRUSADER DELIVERS FOR POWER FIRM. Whatever the fate of the Army's controversial multibillion-dollar Crusader mobile artillery system, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reported May 14 that it has already helped provide an ample return for some of D.C.'s most prominent power brokers. Retired Army generals, including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received six-figure payments after being placed on the board of United Defense Industries Inc., the Arlington-based company that has been developing the Crusader. Former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), the late former Rep. Marvin Leath (D-Tex.) and other lobbyists shared in more than $1 million that United paid in each of the past three years to promote the Crusader and other weapons systems it was developing and producing. But the biggest winner has been the Carlyle Group, the Washington investment firm headed by former Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and other stars of past administrations, Democratic and Republican (including former President George H.W. Bush). Since purchasing United in 1997 for roughly $173 million in cash and $700 million in borrowed funds, Carlyle has reaped more than $400 million in dividends and capital gains from United, according to government filings. Even if Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's decision to kill the artillery system stands, United reportedly still will have received $2 billion from the Crusader program and will receive substantially more to close it down.
STATE COURT REVIEWS N.O. MINIMUM WAGE. The Louisiana Supreme Court will review whether a citywide minimum wage increase in New Orleans will be allowed to stand. At issue is the constitutionality of a state law banning local wage standards -- a law that was drafted and passed in response to a six-year campaign by ACORN and Service Employees International Union Local 100 to raise the minimum wage in New Orleans. On Feb. 2, New Orleans voted, by 63 to 37 percent, to boost the minimum wage for all private employers to $1 above the federal rate (currently $5.15 an hour). New Orleans was the first city in the country to take such a step, and organizers many cities around the country are watching. On March 25, state District Judge Rose Ledet of New Orleans ruled in favor of allowing the voters' choice to stand, finding the state law prohibiting such an increase unconstitutional. If the Louisiana Supreme Court overturns the district court's ruling, ACORN and the SEIU Local 100 intend to campaign for a statewide minimum wage increase.
Living wage campaigns have passed laws in 82 cities and counties to provide fair wages for public employees and employees of public contractors and recipients of public subsidies. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have taken matters into their own hands and raised minimum wages to higher levels, since Congress has allowed the federal minimum wage to decline in real value year after year. For more information see acorn.org.