In case anyone missed the fact that the new Democrats who were elected to the House in November are economic populists who the free trade policies advanced by the Bush administration and the White House's allies in the Democratic Leadership Council, 39 Democratic members of the freshman class have signed a letter reminding party leaders in the chamber that, "Vital to our electoral successes was our ability to take a vocal stand against the Administration's misguided trade agenda, and offer our voters real, meaningful alternatives to the job-killing agreements, such as CAFTA, that the majority of our opponents supported."
The letter, which was sent this week to House Ways & Means Committee chair Charles Rangel, D-New York, who will be a key player in defining the new majority's approach to trade policy, explains that, "It is very important that we not only reverse the troubling results of the administration's trade agreements and trade policies, but also that we are able to deliver on the promise we made to our constituents to move our nation in a new and improved direction on trade."
In the old Republican-dominated House, the Bush administration and its allies were able to secure approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement by a mere two votes -- and that "victory" was secured only after applying extreme pressure to a handful of Republican holdouts against the plan. [If just one more member had voted no, the administration's top trade initiative would have failed on a 216-216 tie when it was considered in July of 2OO5.]
The firm commitment of the Democratic freshmen to fight for fair-trade policies that favor workers, the environment and communities, as opposed to the race-to-the-bottom free-trade policies of the Bush administration and its Democratic allies, should signal a radical shift in direction. There is no longer anything akin to a pro-free trade majority in the House.
The new signal from the House is being echoed in the Senate, where veteran critics of the Clinton and Bush administration's free-trade policies, such as Ohio's Democrat Sherrod Brown and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, have joined a chamber that approved CAFTA by a relatively narrow 54-45. Brown, Sanders and other new senators such as Virginia Democrat Jim Webb have arrived as replacements for Republicans who voted with the administration on trade issues. Webb, who complains about "our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century," says that changing trade policy to protect workers and communities is essential work for the new Congress.
"Every single speech that I made for the entire campaign, I laid out the fact that we must get back to economic fairness -- that we measure the health of a society not by what is happening at the apex, but by what is happening at the base," explains the new senator from Virginia, who adds that, "We measure the health of a society not simply by what the stock market is doing, but [by] whether the people who are doing the work of society are truly receiving a fair share."
Along with a greater willingness to embrace the language of economic populism, the freshmen Democrats in the House and Senate arrive with sharper critiques of trade policy. Their recent experience with the local union and environmental activists who worked on their campaigns, as well as with national the Citizen Trade Campaign PAC, which worked to educate candidates and voters about the need to shift trade policies, has made them aware of dynamics that some older members have yet to fully recognize.
While some veteran representatives still see trade-policy fights as focused on almost entirely on manufacturing concerns, new members such as Wisconsin Democrat Steve Kagen, a physician, recognize that one of the new battlegrounds involves attempts by corporations to import and export professional services. "There is often an irrational belief in our nation that the free market can solve any problem. Unfortunately, there are some services which cannot be appropriately priced or are too essential to be given to the lowest bidder," says Kagen. "There are other harms which can sometimes occur alongside privatization, such as a withdrawal of worker protections or degradation of the environment. It is with concerns like these in mind that I would oppose trade agreements which include ‘service' sector provisions."
Kagen and his fellow freshmen want to bring their economic populism and their understanding of the new dynamics of trade-policy debates to the table. In their latter, they let Rangel know that: "As freshmen, we hope to be able to work with you and other members of the Ways and Means Committee in crafting a new model for U.S. trade agreements that will not only reduce barriers to U.S. exports, but promote fairness and restore opportunity and sustainability for American workers, farmers and small businesses."
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