WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- It was supposed to be a vote that strengthened President Bush's hand abroad in this time of crisis and helped spread global democracy by fostering the "habits of liberty." Instead, the House of Representatives' vote last Thursday on fast track trade legislation looked like a Jerry Springer production.
Pro- fast track House Republican leaders used their absolute power to control Congressional procedures to stop the legislative clock for 23 minutes while frantically pressuring and cajoling holdout legislators. Some nervous members undoubtedly made themselves scarce rather than face the personal wrath of Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, or the gentler ordeal of a telephone plea from the President.
Less fortunate fence sitters literally were besieged by packs of lobbyists or their more committed colleagues. According to The Wall Street Journal, Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, from a North Carolina textile district, was "visibly shaken" by the experience -- but retained enough composure to cave in and vote for fast track.
When the smoke cleared -- or, more precisely, when House presiding officer Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, slammed down his gavel and abruptly ended the vote -- the globalization cheerleaders had prevailed by a single vote.
Since the 1992 fast track vote -- the first vote of the Age of Globalization --the experts have believed that the ultimate fate of all major trade bills rested in the House. Only the lower chamber was sufficiently free of multinational corporate influence, they thought, to give trade policy critics a fighting chance. Yet because last week's margin of defeat was so slim, fast track could be derailed in the Senate. As a result, it's vital to learn the lessons of the 2001 fast track struggle so far.
1. War-time presidents are tough, but not impossible, to beat. For several reasons, this year's fast track vote shouldn't have even been close. A recession is under way. Unemployment is mounting. The heavily traded manufacturing sector is getting hit especially hard. And passing fast track wasn't even possible during the late-1990s boom.
Despite all the pro-fast track big corporate money flooding the Hill, and the usual overwhelming media support for current globalization policies, the fast track opponents would indeed have won if not for a handful of last-minute Republican "switchers." These largely national security-minded Republicans claim that in the end they couldn't oppose their own party's president in the middle of a quasi-war. Interestingly, none of these long-time opponents of NAFTA-style trade agreements cited U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's argument that trade liberalization could greatly aid the war on terrorism. They simply voted to uphold presidential prestige.
Ultimately, however, the joke may be on the Republican hard-liners. For while they were agonizing over preserving their principles or supporting their country's head of state, fast track floor general Bill Thomas was having none of this patriotism stuff. Outraged at last-minute compromises being offered on textile and apparel trade, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee actually threatened to change his vote to a "No." Apparently, supporting the president wasn't nearly as important to him as pandering to the retailers' lobby.
2. Partisanship is alive and well. The Republican switchers no doubt truly believed they were acting to protect their president and their country. But a Republican in the White House sure made their decision easier. It's hard to imagine any of them giving Bill Clinton or Al Gore the same benefit of the doubt, no matter how successful the anti-terror war. And some may be tempted to return to the fast track opposition if maneuverings in the Senate force a second House vote.
Even more partisan were the big business-friendly New Democrats, who usually support measures like fast track. Their excuses for opposing this year's version were so flimsy (e.g., they wanted to vote on an economic stimulus package first), that they can hardly be considered reliable trade allies. Still, their partisanship may only intensify as the 2002 Congressional elections draw closer.
3. Mixed messages can blur focus. One of the great strengths of the trade critics' coalition has been its breadth -- encompassing conservative, nationalist, sovereignty-minded Republicans, blame-America-firsters, one-worlder lefties and many groups in between. The critics' diversity has enabled them to involve in the globalization debate many constituencies only tangentially concerned with in international economics -- e.g., national security hawks, cultural conservatives, AIDS activists, tree-huggers.
Yet on the Left in particular, this grab bag of concerns too often produced a mixed or watered-down message at just the wrong time. Economic conditions had finally pushed concerns like employment and wages for Americans onto the front pages. The Left's emphasis on worker rights and third world economic development, however, helped produce a distracting debate over globalization's impact on developing countries.
Had the entire coalition been focusing like a laser beam on the growing plight of American workers, it might have won in a landslide. Learning this lesson looms especially large for the Senate phase of the fast track struggle.
4. Be careful what you wish for -- you might get it. Presidents have lacked fast track authority since 1994. They have been able to reach literally hundreds of trade agreements without it and made extravagant promises along the way about knocking down foreign trade barriers, improving U.S. trade balances, and creating more "good jobs at good wages." Still, the globalization cheerleaders have unhesitatingly used fast track defeats as excuses for the dismal trade performance that their policies have delivered.
A fast track Senate win would put their strategy and promises to the ultimate test. The decks would be cleared. No more obstacles would block their designs. Given their track record, and the U.S. economy's current straits, it's a prospect that should scare even the most passionate fast track supporter.
(Alan Tonelson is a Research Fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Educational Foundation and the author The Race to the Bottom: Why a Worldwide Worker Surplus and Uncontrolled Free Trade are Sinking American Living Standards (Westview Press).