Fast Track is Down,
But Game's Not Over

The people won a round last month when President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich called off the push for a "Fast Track" vote in the House of Representatives. Clinton was unable to persuade House Democrats to grease the trade rules. He even found himself dickering with Republicans to get them to sign onto the legislation that was designed by Big Business for Big Business.

Clinton may have done the GOP a favor when he threw in the towel. Polls show an overwhelming number of voters -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- oppose the legislation to strip Congress of its ability to amend trade deals negotiated by the President. A record vote on Fast Track would have focused popular resentment against a Big-Business-oriented Congress in the next election.

Labor unions got much of the credit for stopping Fast Track -- and they apparently did their job in mobilizing members -- but Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, also credited an electorate that is alarmed at the flow of jobs out of the United States since the passage of NAFTA. "If labor contributions were the only factor, NAFTA would have been defeated in 1993. This victory demonstrates a sea change in U.S. politics with trade and globalization as hot political issues on which voters nationwide carefully follow their elected representatives."

Ralph Nader added: "As repeated polls demonstrate, [the American people] will not accept further degradation of their standards of living so that global mega corporations can increase their already record profits."

The pro-NAFTA press depicted the vote as a devastating blow to President Clinton as protectionist Democrats turned against him, but that ain't necessarily so. "The real question before us now is whether we connect our values of environmental quality, worker and human rights to our economic policy," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said. "We've tried it the Republican way and it's being rejected. I hope now we'll have a chance to work for a trade policy that puts American values squarely into future negotiations."

"This was not a debate about protectionism versus free trade," said House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior. "Those of us who opposed this fast track have altered the terms of the trade debate ... [and] stand ready to work with the president to shape a new trade policy, one that addresses worker rights, food safety, consumer protection and the environment."

Is Fast Track dead? Don't count on it. It will be harder to kill than Dracula. It may come up again next spring, after corporation executives have had time to work on resistant members of Congress. Too many multinational corporations are counting on the benign-looking global trade deals -- negotiated in secret -- to be dumped on Congress for a quick up-or-down vote. Only later will the public at large realize that the deals authorize international groups such as the World Trade Organization to dismantle local, state and federal regulations that, in the eyes of the WTO, "restrict trade". In practical terms, these global trade deals will have much the same effect as the federal courts had earlier in this century when they expanded the commerce clause of the Constitution to overrule state regulation of corporations.

For example, the Fast Track legislation could enable the President to send the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to Congress for a quick up-or-down vote. MAI is an international agreement to allow corporations to sue state, local and federal governments to overturn regulations that restrict trade. But this trade deal is practically unreported in the nation's corporate press. Few Americans know about this potentially fundamental transfer of power, because they depend on the corporation-dominated media to tell them about it.

A search of the Nexis database of news stories shows only 14 mentions of the MAI in national or big-city U.S. newspapers since 1992, and many of those mentions turned out to be letters to the editor. As of Oct. 30, Nexis listed only one citation for the MAI in the New York Times, on September 14, 1997. There were only two mentions of MAI in the Washington Post, on June 3, 1995, and September 26, 1997. (Thanks to Ellen Dannin of San Diego for the research.)

To the dismay of the business establishment, free trade is reeling. The House voted 356-64 in September to require U.S. trade representatives to better protect local, state and federal governments threatened by the WTO. (That was an implicit repudiation of the MAI.) Then on Nov. 4 the House voted 234-182 against the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which the GOP leadership had tried to slip through on the "Suspension Agenda" for noncontroversial bills. The initiative would have restored tariff exemptions that Caribbean and Central American countries enjoyed before NAFTA. The vote against the Caribbean Basin Initiative showed the widespread opposition to trade deals that would cost American workers their jobs.

There is a need for fair trade deals that promote human rights and health as well as trade, but those deals should be able to hold up to public and congressional scrutiny. Freebooting trade deals, which are negotiated in secret to allow multinational corporations to move their manufacturing operations overseas to the cheapest work force they can find, are unacceptable.

Embracing Reform

TWO GROUPS THAT are carrying on the fight for national sovereignty met last month in the Kansas City area. The Reform Party held its founding convention in Kansas City, Mo., and the Alliance for Democracy met in nearby Atchison, Kan. While the Reform Party is popularly thought to stand on the right wing and the Alliance comes from the left, they have a lot in common in the middle.

The Alliance for Democracy, which last November drew 250 people to a ranch near Kerrville, Texas, for its founding convention, this year drew approximately 80 people to Atchison, 40 miles up the Missouri River from Kansas City. Delegates were to adopt a permanent constitution and bylaws for the group that Ronnie Dugger had brought together with his populist "Call to Action" published in 1995.

But disagreements on the committee that was drafting the Alliance's constitution threatened to derail the fledgling movement. Some of the original founders and at least two local chapters boycotted the Atchison convention, charging that the national officers were acting undemocratically and without sufficient notification of the membership in calling the convention. The main contention was over how much authority would be vested in the national council and conventions, and how much would be decided by direct vote of the entire membership.

In the end, the constitution and bylaws were approved, subject to ratification by the entire membership. Dugger said he hopes the local chapters can resume organizing and reaching out to other progressive groups, as the organizational questions are resolved. The convention also approved eight national campaigns. They include a campaign to stop the Multilateral Agreement on Investment; an educational and political campaign on the nature of corporations and corporate government; and a campaign to end corporate personhood by reversing the judicial and legislative decisions that have created and maintained the rights and power of corporations.

"We're ready to recruit," Dugger said. "We're not looking to a party. We're looking to a movement that coheres and gets strong enough and independent enough of the Democratic Party, which is totally dependent on the corporations, that we follow our own leadership in forming a political movement to save the country." (For more information, contact the Alliance for Democracy, 617-259-9395, email peoplesall@aol.com.)

Meanwhile the Reformers, meeting in downtown Kansas City, were trying to prepare for life after Ross Perot. Just three weeks earlier, a group of 96 dissident Reform Party activists from 23 states, meeting in Schaumburg, Ill., had declared their independence from Perot and formed the American Reform Party, with an eye toward organizing the 11 million people who voted for Perot in 1992 but couldn't bring themselves to vote for the eccentric Dallas billionaire in 1996. (Contact the regular Reform Party at 972-450-8800 or ARP at 303-629-9306.

When it comes to issues, it's hard to tell the Reformers from progressive populists. Pat Choate, the radio talk show host who was Perot's running mate in 1996, spoke to the convention of "a new generation of robber barons ... moving jobs overseas while the basic infrastructure of the United States is wearing out faster than it is being replaced. One-third of Americans lack access to basic health care, and education and training has been allowed to slide to uncaring obsolescence. Neither the Republican nor the Democrats will take on these issues, but we will," he said to applause.

Choate said the Reform Party should run challengers against the 40 or 50 weakest Republican House members. "We may not win them all, but we can draw enough votes to shift control of the House. Then we'll remind the Democrats that if they too break faith with us, we'll turn them out once again." He added, "This party henceforth can determine who will run Congress and who will become the congressional potted plants.

Not all of the Reform Party positions are compatible with progressive populism. But progressive populists ought to work with the Reformers on common issues such as opening the ballot to alternative parties, campaign finance reform, fair trade laws and encouraging small farmers, small businesses and American manufacturing.

The Alliance and other progressive populist groups need to reach people like David Johnston, a 60-year-old Reform Party delegate who works two jobs, inventory control and bagging groceries in Altoona, Wisc. "I made more in 1956, while I was going to college, than I do now working 60 hours a week at two jobs," he said. "My daughter who just got out of college figures she will be working until age 46 to pay her college debt."

When Johnston got out of college, he said, kids could go down to the Uniroyal plant in Eau Claire for a good job. But that was before NAFTA. "That opportunity ain't there," he said. He knows a 52-year-old Ph.D. who once made $80,000 a year in Eau Claire is working as a janitor, even in this time of "economic recovery."

The Reform Party convention drew a sampling of black, Hispanic and Asian delegates of both sexes as well as the stereotypical angry white men. Some of them, such as Lenora Fulani, former presidential candidate of the New Alliance Party (no relation to the Alliance for Democracy), are suspected of being opportunists seeking the Reform Party's federal campaign money in 2000.

Johnston said the Reform Party has attracted people of different points of view, but they all agree on the need for reform. "I've been a Democrat and worked for a Democratic governor, and I've been a Republican, but I can't wait any longer. I don't have that much time. I've been through the system and we need something different."

-- Jim Cullen

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