The fragile and faltering state of American democracy.
Now here is a Patriot Act everyone can get behind. It's called the Patriot Corporation of America Act and it rewards the companies that don't screw their employees and weaken the country by moving the jobs to China and elsewhere.
In these troubled times, doesn't that sound like common sense? Government policy presently works in opposite ways. It literally assists and subsidizes the disloyal free riders who boost their profits by dumping their obligations to the home country. It's called globalization. Establishment wisdom says there is nothing politicians can do about it.
But the bills introduced Thursday by three senators and seven representatives, all Democrats, can begin to reverse this political perversity. Don't expect a roll call anytime soon, but I think the governing principle is pivotally important.
And some Democrats have come up with a potent new version of patriotic politics. While the nation is fighting this ugly, costly war in Iraq, employers should be doing their part to defend the homeland. Will Republican warriors want to vote against that?
The House and Senate bills appear to be differ slightly but pursue the same goal. In the House, a "Patriot Corporation" would get tax breaks and preferences in federal contracting for employers who produce at least 90 percent of their goods and services in the US and with American workers. The companies must invest in research and development domestically, provide adequate health care and pensions and--surprise--comply with federal laws like workplace safety, environmental protection and consumer regulations.
The Senate's "Patriot Employers" version would give a 1 percent tax credit on taxable income for companies that maintain or increase their US employment in relation to their overseas workers. They must also keep their corporate headquarters in the US. The Senate bill adds a "living wage" requirement. Its initial co-sponsors are Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois. Obama's sponsorship, I would guess, may attract other celebrated names.
House co-sponsors are the same nucleus of progressives pushing party leaders to undertake a thorough revamp of US policy on globalization and trade. They are Schakowsky and Hare of Illinois, Sutton and Ryan of Ohio, Woolsey of California, Kagen of Wisconsin and Ellison of Minnesota. Senator Brown and Rep. Jan Schakowsky endorse both House and Senate versions.
The principle at stake is straightforward. Multinational corporations cannot continue to have it both ways--moving more and more value-added production and jobs offshore to capture cheap labor, while still enjoying all of the rewards and benefits of claiming American identity. It's not just the outrageous tax breaks. The American military defends their freedom to operate around the globe.
These measures can be the beginning of tough new policies on globalization. They are quite limited in scope, but a good start. Thousands of small to mid-sized manufacturing firms that do not offshore their production should salute the initiative since the incentives are intended for them. The rewards are modest gestures at this point. The real fight begins when Congress proposes penalties--higher taxes--for those unpatriotic companies that left home.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated admirable shrewdness in the fight she provoked with her own Democrats over approving new trade agreements for George W. Bush. She backed off.
The conflict is not entirely settled yet, but Pelosi wisely decided to defuse the intense anger in the Democratic caucus rather than try to bull through it. In pursuit of unity, she has shown respect for the new folks elected last fall and other rank-and-file Democrats determined to challenge the free-trade status quo and to change it. That is good for them. And good for her.
The surest sign Pelosi is moving in the right direction are the hostile rebukes from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. "Trade Double-Cross," said the headline on the Journal's editorial. "House Democrats go protectionist." This is nonsense, but typical of the Journal's slanderous style. Pelosi is demeaned as a pawn of organized labor and lefty extremists. Makes you wonder if the doctrinaire right-wing Journal could get any worse with Rupert Murdoch as the owner.
This intramural conflict started in May when Pelosi, arm-in-arm with Ways and Means chair Charles Rangel, abruptly announced their "historic deal" with the Bush White House . Dems would approve new trade agreements with Peru and Panama that include much improved labor rights provisions and possibly two other agreements with Colombia and South Korea. The pro-business atmospherics suggested Pelosi might even be persuaded to renew "fast track" negotiating authority for this president .
Democrats were rightly alarmed. Doing a deal with Bush and the multinational lobby suggested Pelosi and senior colleagues were ignoring the rebellious content of last Fall's election and prepared to put the new voices in their place. At a time when Bush's base is imploding, it did not seem smart politics to splinter the Democratic party on such a pivotal matter.
The leadership was pursuing business-as-usual, Washington style, in the name of accomplishing something, however flawed. In fact, they were embracing the same failed model for trade agreements that produced horrendous losses of US manufacturing production and jobs during the last fifteen years. The model includes the scandalous special privileges for multinational capital and corporations, the so-called "investor-state" provisions that began with Bill Clinton's NAFTA.
Pelosi pulled back with a series of assurances. The Panama and Peru agreements need more work, she allowed, and will be postponed until the Fall. For different reasons, Colombia and South Korea were not going to get a vote (Colombia's government is associated with the paramilitary thugs who have murdered hundreds of labor leaders). "Fast track" is not going to get renewed--not for this president anyway.
The leaders left some important issues dangling, but Pelosi responded substantially to suggestions from AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Leo Gerard, president of the steelworkers union, for how to avoid a bloody battle in which nobody wins but Republicans.
If they are wise, the party leaders will let the Peru-Panama agreements die quietly without a roll call. The economic stakes are trivial, but the principle is not. What is the point of giving George Bush a cheap victory when half or more of the Democratic caucus will likely vote against their own leaders? Not a good start for a party trying to reinvent itself and restore its reputation with the public.
A truce now leaves the substantial issues on the table for the real fight later. Democrats in Congress seem divided almost along generational lines. Those who endured all the hard years in the wilderness as the impotent minority naturally want to legislate now that they can. The newcomers who want big change are understandably suspicious of incremental measures that continue down the wrong road.
For Pelosi and other leaders, the choice is about more than emotional loyalties to the old guard. The new crowd represents the party's potential for real growth and a working majority. Lose them and you lose the future.