Senator-elect Sherrod Brown was the first to recognize, in 2005, the potential for a radical shift in the way Congress approaches trade policy. Brown, then an Ohio Congressman who had led frustrating fights in the House against the extension of Most Favored Nation trading status to China, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other corporate-friendly Clinton and Bush Administration deals, noticed an intriguing twist in the vote on CAFTA. The split was tight not only in the House, as trade votes had historically been–a 217-to-215 majority achieved only after rule-bending and arm-breaking by then-majority leader Tom DeLay–but also in the Senate, long a haven of free traders. Forty-five of the 100 senators voted nay. “When you looked at the numbers, and at what seats might be open in 2006, it was clear we could swing not just the House but the Senate,” said Brown, who gave up a safe House seat to challenge incumbent GOP Senator Mike DeWine. “I knew that if we could get the Senate, we could start talking about doing more than blocking bad deals like NAFTA and CAFTA. We could begin to implement a fair-trade agenda that emphasizes protecting workers, the environment, human rights, communities in the US and abroad.”
Brown read the map right. So it is that he will be part of a Senate that could take the lead in upending the corporations-first approach of the past several Administrations. Much has been made of shifts in the House makeup that augur changes in trade policies: DeLay is gone, Republicans are out of power and more than two dozen new fair-trade Democrats are ready to take the place of free-trade Republicans. But the changes in the Senate are just as sweeping, and perhaps more significant. Of the six Republican incumbents who lost to Democrats on November 7, five were steady free-trade voters. All were replaced by lawmakers–Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jim Webb in Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island–who argued that past trade agreements have failed to deliver on the promise of more prosperity for US workers and farmers. In addition, the seat held by Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who voted for CAFTA and other trade deals, was taken by Bernie Sanders, who for more than a decade has been one of the steadiest and savviest critics of the free-trade agenda. These new senators join a cadre of senior Democrats who have grown increasingly critical of US trade policies and who are now in positions of real power–North Dakotans Kent Conrad, who will chair the Budget Committee, and Byron Dorgan, who will chair the Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on trade; Iowa’s Tom Harkin, who will chair the Agriculture Committee; and Illinois’s Dick Durbin, who will serve as majority whip.
While the veterans will be in the lead on many trade issues, the newcomers bring a distinct and vital perspective to the Senate. They’re more closely linked than most of their senior colleagues to the movement that began to put globalization issues on the US agenda with the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Brown marched with Ohio trade unionists in those protests. And he and Sanders developed a Congressional response to the Seattle uprising by sponsoring a Global Sustainable Development Resolution, which proposed including enforceable labor, social and economic rights in trade agreements and cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries, among other measures. Their moves were cheered on by an organic farmer named Jon Tester, who, long before he was the senator-elect from Montana, was working with leaders of the Seattle protests to counter the push for the genetic modification of food.
Brown, Sanders and Tester will play an essential role, along with newly empowered labor groups, in reminding Democratic leaders that anger over trade policies drew swing voters to the party’s line on November 7. That message is critical because there are still plenty of powerful Democrats with long records of backing free-trade pacts, among them House majority leader Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus.
Some of the first clashes will come over the renewal of presidential “fast track” authority, which expires in the middle of next year. The Bush Administration wants to maintain fast track in its current form, with Congress essentially ceding negotiating authority on trade deals to the White House and its appointees. There are legitimate fears that Democrats like Hoyer and Emanuel are willing to give the President what he wants, with only a few cosmetic changes. The “Seattle Senators” and their House allies will push for a new approach that sets clear standards for protecting workers, the environment and communities. And if they succeed, they can then get down to the serious work of reopening and reforming existing agreements like NAFTA.
Senators like Brown and Sanders understand that, just as the corporate free-trade absolutism of the Clinton and Bush years is a recipe for disaster, so too is the old-school economic nationalism of Pat Buchanan. Instead, they are looking to give legislative definition to the slogan of the streets: “Another World Is Possible.” They will do so by demanding that the interests of workers and farmers at home and abroad come before the interests of the multinational corporations that have padded their profits with race-to-the-bottom trade policies.