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Policy Profiteers | The Nation

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Policy Profiteers

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Battling the war profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that "wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism." The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in 1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing, Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or, as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11 attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del Fuego to the Tundra.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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With each passing day, these policy profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced, "Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade, specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his "Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney.

But Zoellick wasn't listening to Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11 bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding, "Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle."

That was too much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten, undisclosed bill demands a public apology."

When Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of October.

Long before September 11, the debate over fast track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations, had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad. "If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September 11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism. School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants' rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may be in place."

Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment, proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide attackers with death.

Every war has its profiteers. But it looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism" defined solely by self-interest.

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