The position of US trade representative has, since it was established during Kennedy’s presidency, been occupied by starry-eyed advocates for global economic arrangements that satisfy Wall Street and the investor class but devastate Main Street and the working class–not just in the United States but in the countries with which it trades. Even under Democratic presidents the job has gone to free-trade absolutists such as Mickey Kantor who have neglected concerns about worker rights, human rights, and consumer and environmental protections in favor of the race to the bottom pursued by corporations seeking ever lower wages and laxer regulations.
During the campaign, Barack Obama promised to break the cycle by establishing policies and appointing officials who favor, if not quite the fair trade agenda advocated by labor, farm and environmental groups, at least a more balanced approach. It appears that he will follow through on that pledge. Obama has chosen as his trade representative California Representative Xavier Becerra, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who frequently scores 100 percent ratings from the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and other groups that have been at odds with the trade policies of the past several administrations. A former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and key player on the House Ways and Means Committee, Becerra has a long history of engagement with trade debates. That made it particularly significant when, in 2006, he announced that “it has become very obvious that our system for devising trade agreements, so very important to this country’s functioning around the world, has not only broken, but it has broken completely.”
Becerra is not a resolute fair-trader like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur. Like Obama, he’s a mixed bag who will still need to be prodded by activists, especially as new debates about trade in services evolve. Becerra backed NAFTA as a House freshman, and has voted for several other trade deals. He has since acknowledged, however, that he was wrong to support schemes that may increase commerce but tend to concentrate “the benefits of that commerce in the hands of very few.” That’s encouraging. Even more encouraging is the fact that since his election to the House in 1992, Becerra has consistently opposed the “fast-track” model for negotiating trade agreements. When Congress grants fast-track authority to a president, it cedes to the trade representative most of its ability to shape policy, retaining only the right to accept or reject a final agreement. If Obama and Becerra simply develop a new approach to negotiating trade agreements, one that involves consultation with Congress, it will be much more likely that labor, consumer and human rights concerns will be addressed.
It is on those human rights issues that Becerra has been a particularly strong player in recent years. The Congressman delivered a national Spanish-language radio address last spring in which he defended the Democratic rejection of Bush’s proposed Colombia free trade agreement on the grounds that, “Colombia still remains a dangerous place for those who advocate for worker rights. More than 2,500 labor leaders have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. What would we say if labor leaders were being assassinated in our country every day, just for standing up for their rights as workers? That is what is happening in Colombia today.” The message Becerra delivered was radically at odds with that of Republican and DLC free-traders. If he keeps delivering it as trade representative–along with other fair-trade themes he has articulated–Becerra could become the face of the change in trade policies that Obama promised, and that working people here and abroad can believe in.