Supporting NAFTA Was the Kiss of Death for Democrats --Why Dems Should Think Twice About Voting for TPP


It’s serious flashback time for those involved in the 1993 debate over the North America Free Trade Agreement. With the “fast track” trade vote expected as early as this Thursday, a Democratic president is once again twisting arms and dangling rewards in a desperate effort to muster votes for a corporate-driven trade deal. And just like in 1993, the vote will be one of those rare bipartisan moments in Washington. The word is only about a dozen members remain on the fence, most of them Democrats. The president is reportedly putting the tightest screws on members of the Congressional Black Caucus. After the NAFTA wheeling and dealing began in earnest back in 1993, it didn’t take long to push enough Dems off the fence. All these years later, NAFTA remains the basic blueprint for every U.S. trade deal. 

Let me skip over NAFTA’s failure to deliver on promises for workers, the environment, human rights, etc. These have all been extensively documented over the years by the Institute for Policy Studies, and many others across the continent. President Obama acknowledged its flaws himself when he made a campaign trail promise to renegotiate the dealInstead, let’s take a look at what individual members got by helping to ram the pact through Congress. Did their support for the big business lobby’s dream deal ensure a glittering political career? 

Starting at the top: Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley sided with the White House and against most of the House Democrats, including Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. In his 30-year political career, that controversial move stood out enough for the New York Times to mention it in Foley’s obituary. A year after the NAFTA vote, the obit noted, “Mr. Foley became the first speaker since the Civil War to be defeated for re-election in his own district.”

Ouch. While Foley’s defeat can’t be attributed to a single factor, his decision to side with the corporate lobby on NAFTA certainly didn’t prevent his electoral humiliation either.  

Foley was not the only Democrat to flame out within a year of casting a vote for NAFTA. In fact, of the 34 Democratic incumbents who were defeated in the Republican sweep of 1994, 16 had voted for NAFTA. Several of these losers had been among the fence-sitters who received goodies from the administration. 

Public Citizen has meticulously documented many of these trade vote deals over the past two decades and is planning to release a new report this week on the lessons from all this horse-trading. (Look for the report soon here.) What it found over the years is that most of these promises were never fulfilled. In a detailed 2001 report following up on the NAFTA deals, Public Citizen concluded that “systematically, the White House promises of special safeguards for U.S. farm commodities, bridges and more remained unfulfilled. Exceptions were several meaningless promises, such as photographs with the president, and one campaign fund-raising event.”

One of these unfulfilled promises targeted textile and apparel state members. In the days before the NAFTA vote, President Bill Clinton sent them letters aimed at calming concerns about a pending global trade rule to phase out import protections on these products within 10 years. The administration would secure an extension to 15 years, Clinton promised. A month after the NAFTA vote, U.S. negotiators accepted the 10-year timeline. 

Rep. Clete Donald Johnson, Jr. was one of the targets of that empty promise. After voting for NAFTA, the Georgia Democrat got demolished in 1994, losing by a margin of more than 30 percent. A few years later, Clinton offered Johnson a consolation prize: a post as chief U.S. trade negotiator for textiles, a sector in rapid decline due to low-wage foreign competition. 

Rep. Bill Sarpalius, of Texas, was another NAFTA sellout whose political career was cut short. According to Public Citizen, he pocketed a bevy of promises, including a new federally funded nuclear research lab that was to be located in his district. After Sarpalius lost his seat in 1994, the lab deal fell through.

Rep. David Price also lost his re-election bid after casting his NAFTA vote. According to Multinational Monitor, the North Carolina Democrat came out in support of the deal after the Clinton administration conceded to his long-sought demands to award American Airlines two lucrative international air routes that would benefit his district. Price later regained a seat in Congress and is now once again sitting on the fence in the fast track debate. 

The lure of prestigious institutional pork proved dangerously tempting for other members as well. Clinton promised Rep. Lewis Payne, Jr. of Virginia that his district would be considered as the future site of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Institute wound up in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Dems from Dallas were proud to get a promise from the Clinton administration to site the new NAFTA Commission for Labor Cooperation in that city. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson and Jack Bryant both proudly attended the inaugural ceremony in 1995, along with Dallas mayor (and later Obama U.S. trade representative) Ron Kirk. 

Cornell University professor Lance Compa, who directed labor law research at the Commission, told me, “They thought they were getting dozens and dozens of high-paid professionals who would pump money into the local economy. They were disappointed when the grand total of nine Secretariat staff arrived.” Less than five years later, the Commission was moved to Washington, DC. During the Bush administration, it was quietly shut down. 

Why President Obama is pulling out the stops for fast track, we may never know. After 20 years, it’s still hard to fathom why President Clinton was willing to sell out the store for NAFTA. 

In his brilliant book The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, John R. MacArthur provides some insights. Rahm Emanuel, per usual, was particularly candid. Then a top advisor to Clinton, Emanuel was a key leader of the NAFTA war room, along with chief trade negotiator Mickey Kantor and NAFTA czar William Daley. Asked about Clinton’s final drive for passage, Emanuel said: “He had to win. It’s better to win than to lose. I’m a big believer in that. I do not believe in moral victories.”

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