The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was such a high priority for the Bush administration that the president personally lobbied Congressional Republicans on the issue Wednesday, passed the House by two votes.
Those two votes came from members who can best be described as "Bush Democrats."
The final vote on CAFTA was 217-215 in favor of the deal, the closest margin possible -- as a tie vote would have prevented approval.
Last night, President Bush eked out a very narrow victory on his top trade priority, with the House of Representatives approving a free-trade agreement with Central American countries by just two votes. The House vote was held open for more than one hour to ensure passage. The final tally was 217 to 215.
The White House's victory on CAFTA was achieved through a combination of intense pressure and outright bribery to secure support for the measure, which fostered strong opposition from Democrats and Republicans. As Republican Representative C.L. "Butch" Otter, Republican of Idaho, told the Boston Globe today, GOP leaders promised pork-barrel spending and future legislation to undecided members, with a massive highway spending bill scheduled to be completed this week as a prime location for pet projects. "They're pulling out all the stops," Otter said. "They're either promising or threatening. They've done everything they could." (The Idaho rep. said he opposed CAFTA, despite personal lobbying from Bush at the White House.)
At least the GOP legislators were able to wrest unrelated bribes for their districts in return for their votes. That much cannot be said for the 15 so-called Democrats who voted for the pact and made passage possible.
Let's be clear: Any member of Congress who votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement has signaled their disregard for labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups that have spent the better part of a year actively opposing the Bush administration's attempt to create trade policies that favor only the interests of multinational corporations.
That goes for Republicans, for independents and, especially, for Democrats.
The Democratic party has relied heavily on labor support to win and hold competitive seats in the House, and its Democratic representatives cannot hide behind the excuses of White House pressure or political necessity that Republicans employ.
After more than two years of campaigning, the CAFTA fight has come down to the wire with a vote scheduled to take place this week. NAFTA led to the loss of almost one million US jobs, the displacement of 1.5 million Mexican campesinos and an environmentally toxic border, all while multinational corporations gained huge profits. The passage of CAFTA is sure to presage more of the same.
As Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch argues, the passage of CAFTA "would serve to push ahead the corporate globalization model that has caused the â€˜race to the bottom' in labor and environmental standards and would promote privatization and deregulation of key public services."
Indeed, many NGOs working in Central America contend that the pact, while delivering substantial profits to multinational corporations, would do little for the poor of that region. Organized labor, progressive farm groups, environmental groups, civil rights groups and human rights groups are all opposed to the trade agreement.
So, with the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up.
On Sunday, leaders of four of the country's largest labor unions announced they would boycott this week's AFL-CIO convention, and officials from two of those unions, SEIU and the Teamsters, withdrew from the Federation on Monday.
The five unions now comprising the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC)--along with SEIU, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE--have formed what amounts to a rival federation--whether they all formally leave the AFL-CIO or not, which now seems likely. These unions' collective 5 million membership represents 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million total. If the mammoth 2.7 million member National Education Association aligns with the effort, CTWC will hold exactly half of all union members in the United States.
At a time when the scale of corruption in Congress has risen to obscene heights, the fight to achieve a clean government has heated upâ€“and the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russell Feingold, is admirably spearheading the campaign to usher in a new era.
Feingold, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, understands the importance of this fight better than anyone. So, this month, the tough-minded reformer introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Martin Meehan has similar legislation pending in the House). Once again, Feingold is doing good service to his nation by pushing into the next frontier of reforming lobbying corruption in Washington.
The bill's key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit "lobbyists from giving gifts to members" or staff and require "members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel."
Congressman Maurice Hinchey had the crowd of more than 900--packed into New York's Ethical Culture Society's sweltering auditorium this beautiful summer Saturday--on its feet.
Hinchey was the second of three speakers at a Town Hall event this afternoon co-sponsored by The Nation and Democrats.com. (He joined former Congresswoman Liz Holtzman--who was brilliant in laying out the legal process available to hold administration officials responsible for torture at Abu Ghraib, as she wrote about in her recent Nation article--and Air America's Randi Rhodes--who alternately made the crowd laugh and wince with her scathing and funny debunking of Administration spin and lies. Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.Com skillfully moderated.)
"Torture and Lies: Who is Accountable?" was the question. Hinchey, who has represented a largely conservative district in upstate New York since 1993, answered unflinchingly. "Never have I seen such an unlawful Administration, one with such arrogance toward the rule of law. Their activities are criminal."
If House Democrats had stuck together in opposition to moves by the Bush administration to reauthorize the worst elements of the Patriot Act, the legislation would have been defeated and a major victory would have been won for civil liberties.
Unfortunately, Democrats did not stick together on Thursday, when the House considered sixteen provisions of the act that are set to expire at the end of the year unless they are reauthorized by Congress.
Following a day-long debate on Thursday, the House voted 257 to 171 to extend, and in some case make permanent, the most controversial provisions of the law that was hastily crafted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Now we know the truth. The Patriot Act was never intended as an emergency measure," argued Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who has long been an outspoken critic of the law that had its start in former Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department. "It appears the sponsors were always interested in a permanant crackdown on civil liberties."