Dangerous Times

Our long national distraction is over. We wish we could take pleasure at the right-wingers flummoxed at President Clinton's acquittal by the Senate on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Instead we fear that the President, trying to beat Special Persecutor Kenneth Starr to the history books, will be tempted once again to betray his progressive allies and cut bad deals with the Republicans on Social Security, Medicare and Fast Track for Free Trade.

We may yet wish the Senate had gone ahead with the full list of witnesses Henry Hyde wanted to parade through the well of the Senate. There is little reason to trust the administration, or hope that Congress will do any good for Main Street over Wall Street.

Clinton bought into the Social Security scare tactics when he proclaimed in the State of the Union address that we should save Social Security "first and above all" for the 21st century. Sounds good, except the fears of a Social Security shortfall have been ginned up by conservatives who have been scheming to do away with the New Deal's signature program ever since it was enacted in 1935.

Once again, the "reformers" are pouncing on a phony crisis: If we see the low annual growth rate of 1.5% over the next 75 years, as the pessimists forecast, Social Security would have to reduce benefits paid after 2032. However, that projected growth rate is less than half the rate of the past 75 years. A normal growth rate would leave the system flush with cash. Also, if the growth rate does average only 1.5% over the next 75 years, investments in the stock market would not show the 7% annual return on equities which the privatizers assume in their proposals to replace the Social Security system.

In addition, moving to a privatized Social Security system would require a tax increase or a reduction in benefits for current retirees as revenues are diverted into private accounts. The only ones who would see higher benefits are Wall Street traders.

Also look out for the Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare's report on how to reform the health insurance program to benefit the healthy and wealthy at the expense of the poor and infirm. The proposal by Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana, the commission's chair, would eliminate the entitlement of health care for seniors and turn Medicare into a voucher program to pay part of private insurance premiums. Breaux's proposal also would raise the eligibility age from 65 to 67, which would throw several million retirees into the ranks of the uninsured. The plan does not even address the main problems facing Medicare, such as the failure to cover prescription drugs and the failure to reduce out of pocket expenditures, nor does it address the financial challenges facing Medicare. A complete waste of time.

The administration is particularly untrustworthy on trade issues, where it has slavishly followed Wall Street's line. In 1997 only a popular uprising prevented the Republican congressional leadership from winning approval of Fast Track, which allows the rubber-stamping of trade pacts by Congress with a minimum of public and congressional scrutiny. While the Fast Track debate was going on, but unknown to most members of Congress and unreported in the mainstream press, U.S. officials were engaged in secret negotiations in Paris to draft a Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), which would establish a "bill of rights" for multinational corporations that would threaten domestic sovereignty. [See "The Next Battle: MAI," 1/98 PP.]

MAI finally was scuttled at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last fall, due in large part to objections by citizens' groups who mobilized on the Internet despite the news blackout. However, in January the European Union and Japan announced that they will push for MAI-like investment negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO). And multinational corporations are working to remove public interest regulation in other venues, including NAFTA expansion, the proposed African Trade and Development Act (alias NAFTA for Africa, discussed below), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the TransAtlantic Economic Partnership (TEP), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. That makes it extremely important that Congress--and the public--has the time to scrutinize every trade deal that comes before it.

Still, the corporate lobby hopes Senate compromisers can jar Fast Track loose. The United States will be hosting a meeting of the WTO later this year to discuss global free trade. Clinton wants Fast Track by then.

There also will be pressure to expand NAFTA to include Chile, despite NAFTA's dubious achievements during its first five years, as chronicled by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and reported in this issue.

Coming up sooner is the NAFTA for Africa bill, sponsored by the unlikely pair of Representatives, Philip Crane, R-Illinois, and Charles Rangel, D-New York. A rerun of the African Growth and Opportunity Act that passed the House in 1998 but stalled in the Senate, Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman noted in a recent column, "With friends like these, Africa certainly doesn't need any enemies."

The Crane-Rangel bill is promoted by USAfrica, a coalition of U.S.-based oil and other multinational corporations. In return for letting the multinationals control the drilling, mining, harvesting and other resources within their borders, the African countries would qualify for U.S. aid and gain more access to the U.S. textile market. "The hitch is the whole quota system ends in 2005, at which point no one but China will be in this sector," Global Trade Watch reports. "So, Africa gets led down a dead end and mainly U.S. women and people of color in this sector lose their jobs now. The other benefit given some countries is more access to the U.S. market for steel, NO JOKE!"

Sponsor Crane showed his sensitivity to the welfare of Africa last year when he told an International Fiscal Association gathering in Chicago, as reported in Congress Daily: "Of those countries in sub-Saharan Africa, to be sure, a lot of them are retards. I mean they've got a long way to go."

Of course, you don't have to be against everything. This year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who calls the Crane-Rangel bill the "African Recolonization Act," has introduced the African HOPE (Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment) Act. Jackson's bill would focus on debt relief for African nations, but also would protect American workers by requiring companies doing business in Africa and planning to export to the United States to adhere to environmental, worker safety and labor rights standards similar to those required of companies operating in the United States. These companies would also be required to pay a living wage to employees in Africa.

After the impeachment debacle, Republicans are desperate to show they can accomplish something. Clinton should demand that "fair trade" provisions be included in any global agreements. While he's at it, he could make sure Congress increases the minimum wage, reforms campaign financing and gives progressives a seat at the table when the budget is written.

In his two years remaining in office Clinton can stand up for progressive Democratic principles that got him elected twice. Or Clinton can join in a "bipartisan" deal with the GOP to scale back Social Security benefits, privatize Medicare, make it easier for manufacturers to send jobs further away from the United States and adopt limited health care reforms to clarify the rights of insurance companies.

Neither route will redeem his tragically flawed administration, but standing up for a progressive Democratic agenda in the next year at least might help the Democrats capture a progressive majority in 2000 to enact that agenda. Or he can finally merge the Democrats into the Republican Party and join Vernon Jordan on the boards of the Fortune 500 in gratitude for his eight years of service to Wall Street.

Contact the White House at 202-456-1414 or Congress at 202-224-3121. Write your congressmember c/o U.S. House, Washington, DC 20515; U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510;
or the President, White House, Washington DC 20500.

-- Jim Cullen

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