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A Subversion of American Democracy? White House & Democratic Leadership Agree on Secret Trade Deal

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Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, and author of the book “The Selling of 'Free Trade': NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy,” discusses what’s been happening behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and why many environmentalists, AIDS activists, American labor unions, and social movements in Latin America oppose the deal. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It was an unexpected announcement from Washington and one many are still trying to figure out. Earlier this month, the White House and Democratic leaders announced they had reached a historic agreement on trade. It’s the first bipartisan economic agreement since Democrats took control of Congress this year. Democrats say they’ve won guarantees to protect labor rights and environmental standards in all future trade deals, starting with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. Labor rights would include union organizing, collective bargaining, and bans on child labor and workplace discrimination. On the environment, countries trading with the U.S. would be forced to comply with existing laws and international accords.

But critics say Democratic leaders have fallen far short of what they claim. The negotiations were conducted in near secrecy, and the details haven’t been fully disclosed. Criticism has come from many circles: environmentalists, AIDS activists, American labor unions, social movements in countries, including Colombia and Peru.

Meanwhile, groups representing U.S. corporations have supported the plan. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business federation. Chamber President Tom Donohue said, “We are encouraged by assurances that the labor provisions cannot be read to require compliance with [International Labor Organization] Conventions.”

Democrats are anything but united on the issue. Democratic caucus members are reportedly meeting today about the deal to avoid an internal split. That may be hard to overcome. As the agreement was announced, The New York Times reported at least half of Democratic congressmembers were prepared to oppose it. In such a case, Democratic leaders would be forced to count on Republican support to pass final legislation.

As scrutiny grows, Congressmember Charles Rangel, the Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, defended the deal in an interview Monday with CNN’s Lou Dobbs.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL: The United States trade representatives, when they’re negotiating with a foreign country, should not be negotiating as lobbyists for our multinational. When they sit at that table and U.S. is in there, it means that, yes, they’re supposed to get a better-than-fair deal for our businesses. But they have to consider the impact that it’s going to have on American jobs, American communities and American industry. This is now a part of the policy. This policy is going to be in every agreement. If you’re talking about Peru, Panama, Korea or Colombia, this is going to be. And they have to be held accountable, not to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic Congressmember Charles Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and lead negotiator on the trade deal.

I’m joined now by Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book, The Selling of “Free Trade”: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy. He joins me here in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RICK MacARTHUR: Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your understanding of this agreement?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, my principal understanding is that this is a fundraising gambit by the House leadership. Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel — and Rangel, in particular, because he’s chairman of the money committee, the House Ways and Means Committee — are putting out their sandwich board on Wall Street to say, “We’re ready for business. We’re open for business. We’ve got to show you something, that we’re interested in something you’re interested in. Now, pony up.”

This is a fundraising tactic, which was pioneered by Bill Clinton in the NAFTA fight in 1993, when he essentially said, “The Democratic Party, or at least my administration, is going to be a corporate-friendly Democratic Party, and I’m going to prove my bona fides. I’m going to prove my credibility with the business community by pushing a trade agreement that is absolutely hostile to everything that the Democratic Party used to stand for or that the base of the Democratic Party stands for,” which was NAFTA, which the Business Roundtable loved, which the Fortune 500 loved. And as a result, Clinton was able to raise massive amounts of money from corporate America and from Wall Street that had been hitherto unavailable to the Democratic Party. That was Republican money.

Now, Rangel and Pelosi are saying, “Well, we’re gearing up for the 2008 election. We’ve got to raise a lot of money.” They’re closer to the Clinton wing of the party, which is the pro-so-called-free-trade wing of the party, the pro-NAFTA, pro-permanent-normal-trade-relations-with-China part of the party. And this is a way of saying to the corporate community and to Wall Street, particularly, and to Wal-Mart, the retail lobby — Wall Street, Wal-Mart — that we’re open for business, we want to raise money from you.

Now, none of this has to do with the two main trade agreements that are not going to be changed. You didn’t see Rangel say they’re going to revisit NAFTA and change the rules of NAFTA. You didn’t see him say we’re going to do anything about China, because that’s where the big money is. That’s where the big dislocation has occurred. He’s talking about four or three particularly small countries, which — first of all, putting aside whether it’s appropriate for the United States to be legislating domestic social improvements in foreign countries, these are unenforceable.

The Peruvians, for example, they have nothing to sell us. They have nothing to offer us but cheap labor. So the idea that we’re going to be able to — we’re going to force the Peruvians to raise labor standards, when it’s precisely the low labor standards, the lousy labor standards, the lack of environmental control and regulation, that attracts people to build factories in Peru in the first place, is preposterous.

In Colombia, there are 60 — I don’t know — 70 union organizers murdered every year. It is impossible to control the militias, the right-wing militias, and the government forces in Colombia. The idea that we’re going to legislate through a trade agreement, improve social — to stop — essentially stop the civil war in Colombia, is madness. But here you have the leadership saying, “We’re going to put these big important conditions in the trade agreement,” as though they could enforce them.

Second thing to remember, of course, is that, who’s going to do the enforcing? Who’s going to do the certifying? The executive branch. The White House will decide whether Peru or Colombia or Panama are in compliance with these new symbolic provisions. So this is very much a replay of NAFTA, in the sense that in NAFTA they also said we’re going to have side agreements on labor rights, environmental protection, the National Development Bank along the border. None of it was — virtually none of it was implemented.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote from you, from Cokie and Steve Roberts. Cokie Roberts, of course, NPR, ABC. They wrote in their column, “losers, and their labor bosses, should not be allowed to dictate trade policy. […] Congress should shelve its feelings and renew his authority to negotiate more trade deals. America’s economic future depends on it.”

RICK MacARTHUR: Right. Well, these are the elites of the media. They’re aligned with Wall Street, Wal-Mart, with the leadership of the political parties. And what they’re talking about here is fast-track, which is a fundamentally undemocratic and, I think, broadly speaking, unconstitutional approach to negotiating trade treaties. And this is why people have to get interested in this now, not a year from now.

If Congress authorizes what they call fast-track negotiation, that means that the White House is able then to negotiate, or the trade represent — the executive is permitted to negotiate the treaty, the trade deal with the foreign country, bring it back to Congress, and then there has to be an up or down vote on the whole package, on the whole bill, with no amendments. It’s unlike any other legislation that goes through Congress. You’re not permitted to amend it.

So, you can imagine, when a fast-track-negotiated treaty comes back to Congress, there’s tremendous pressure on the dissident congressman, saying, “Look, look what we’ve done. We’ve put side agreements in. We put in nice things to protect labor organizers in Colombia and Peru. You’ve got to vote for this. And you’ve also got to do it because if you want to stay, remain an important member of the Democratic Party caucus, you’d better vote for it.” And then, you can’t — and there’s no way you can amend it.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton was on the Wal-Mart board for years.

RICK MacARTHUR: Six years. Six years, from 1986 to 1992, Hillary Clinton was on the board of Wal-Mart. I keep trying to explain to people that Wal-Mart is not a public service organization, that they’re in the business of making money. They’re also in the business of maintaining these relationships with dedicated factories in China, particularly, where you cannot form a labor union, independent of the All Chinese Labor Federation, which is controlled by the government. Wildcat strikes are met with violence. You get your head busted or you get thrown in jail.

And I also wish people would understand that the same situation — it’s not as disciplined or as rigid in Mexico, but it’s still largely the case that if you try to start a labor union, an independent labor union, that is independent of the CTM, the national labor union, which has historically been a subsidiary of the Mexican government, you get your head busted, you get thrown out, you get intimidated. You’re lucky if you have the CTM in a plant, but if you actually have the guts to form your own union, you’re risking your life.

Charlie Rangel is not talking about Mexico. He’s not talking about China. He’s talking about these little countries that are going to have very little impact, but which we will then be able to exploit more efficiently, because trade agreements — first of all, these trade agreements are contracts. They’re investment agreements. Their main purpose is to protect American investment or foreign investment in these countries against expropriation, against seizure of assets, so they can not only operate safely, in terms of an investment platform, but also lock in the cheap labor.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the Democrats get away with negotiating this in secret the way they have? And how much of this have we seen at this point?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, this is the legacy of the Clinton administration, that the Clintons persuaded enough members of the Democratic Party that labor unions were finished. And they were, I think, largely right. Labor unions were finished as an important source of votes and power, or that they could be taken for granted. They were going to vote for the Democrats anyway, because they had no choice, and the place to raise money and to expand influence with the party was in corporate America. And Clinton says to these people, through Terry McAuliffe and all his friends, Gene Sperling, the corporate Democrats who came out of the Democratic Leadership Council, “Look, you can’t argue with results. I got elected president twice, and we almost had fundraising parity with the Republicans in the ’90s.” Now —

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what power do the pressure groups, like unions, like environmental groups, have right now? We have 30 seconds.

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, they have to say, we’re not going to play along with this anymore. We’re not going to act as a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. And they’ve got to put pressure on the newly elected members of Congress — the Sherrod Browns from Ohio, the Jim McGoverns from Massachusetts — he’s not new, but Sherrod Brown in the Senate is a better example. Don’t give in to these fake symbolic gestures toward labor rights. They’re just window dressing. They’re just fig leaves to cover up what the real agenda is, which is to, again, give corporations more choices of cheap labor countries to operate in, which kill unions in the United States, because you can’t organize a union in this country anymore. You can’t do it, because they’ll shut your plant down, or they’ll threaten to shut your plant down.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Rick MacArthur, thank you very much, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of the book, The Selling of “Free Trade”: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy.

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