OUCH!: Who's Voice Matters on Trade?

With protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization leading the news this week, it's a good time to ask what happens to an issue when American public opinion says "go slow" and campaign contributors say "move fast." Unfortunately, with trade policy the answer is obvious.For years, Americans have been expressing doubts about the merits of free trade arrangements like NAFTA and the W.T.O., concerned about their impact on jobs and other issues. For example, a 1996 poll done by Lake Research found that average voters viewed free trade agreements as job losers rather than job creators by a margin of 59 to 25 percent.More recent polls show that Americans are sharply critical of normalizing trading relations with China. By a margin of 76 to 20 percent, they want the issues of Chinese human rights abuses, military technology transfers and illegal campaign contributions dealt with in any U.S.-China trade deal, according to a May 1999 Epic/MRA poll. Even after being told in that poll that "U.S. business interests say that including these issues in any trade agreement between China and the United States would place U.S. products at a competitive disadvantage," Americans supported raising these issues by a margin of nearly 15 to 1. According to a November 1999 Zogby poll, by a margin of 69 to 20 percent Americans want the U.S. to insist on better human rights and freedom of religion in China before admitting it to the global trading system.Indeed, when asked to choose which issues should be priorities for the federal government, less than one percent of the public ranked "developing international trade agreements among their top seven concerns, according to a Hart/Teeter poll from March 1999.And yet Washington continues to expend a huge amount of energy and political capital on free trade, first with the passage of NAFTA in 1993, then with the establishment of the World Trade Organization, and now with the Clinton Administration's agreement to grant China normal trading status and invite it into the W.T.O. The U.S.-China deal does not cover human or labor rights, but it does do a lot for U.S. banks, insurers, telecommunications firms, Hollywood film exporters and agribusiness, according to the U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Why? Follow the money.Big donors to both parties -- people who gave $5,000 or more -- favor free trade by a 65 to 24 margin, according to Lake Research's 1996 poll. A Joyce Foundation survey of large donors ($200 and up) to 1996 congressional candidates found that by a margin of two-to-one campaign contributors favor expanding free trade policies "even if jobs are lost." And there's a lot of money behind that opinion. Consider that of the six hundred member companies of the U.S.-China Business Council -- a leading lobby for normalizing trade relations -- just the top twenty gave more than $26 million in PAC and soft money contributions to federal candidates and parties in the 1996 election cycle, plus hundreds of thousands more in large individual contributions, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. It's not a coincidence that the chief winners in the recently announced U.S.-China deal are all also huge sources of campaign cash.OUCH! is a regular column from the Public Campaign on how private money in politics hurts average citizens.

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