The Hollow ‘Free-Trade’ Promises

Official Washington has long embraced “free-market” mantras, whether bank deregulation or fast-track trade bills promising prosperity for all. But the promises have been hollow, hollowing out the Middle Class and now causing problems for President Obama’s Pacific trade deal, write Bill Moyers and Bernard Weisberger.

By Bill Moyers and Bernard Weisberger

Pro-democracy forces won a big victory Friday when they stalled the top-secret Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement backed by the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress.

But it’s only Round One. The unholy trio of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who has vowed to keep any of President Barack Obama’s nominees from being confirmed), Speaker of the House John Boehner (who has thwarted just about every Democratic legislative proposal of the past several years), and President Obama (a Democrat, in case you are having trouble remembering) are as one in a desperate effort to rescue their Frankenstein-like creation.

President Barack Obama speaking in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. [Photo credit: White House]

President Barack Obama speaking in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. [Photo credit: White House]

Their only hope is to bribe, browbeat, or brainwash enough House members to change their minds. It could happen. The journalist John R. MacArthur, writing late last week in the Providence Journal, tells how New York Democrat Kathleen Rice flip-flopped. Not long ago, she opposed fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership because she worried it would not “protect her district’s working families.” As well she might; this agreement is everything the giant corporations want; it decidedly wasn’t written with working people in mind.

But last week, Rep. Rice suddenly stopped worrying about those workers and went over to the other side, voting in favor of fast-tracking one of the most massive giveaways to multinational companies ever — including corporations that have been shipping jobs overseas and pocketing their swollen off-shore profits to avoid taxes.

How in the world could Rice betray her working-class constituents, the people who trusted her to look after their interests? What changed her mind? For one thing, the President assured turncoats like Rice that he would “have their back” if he had their votes.

We can’t know what that means, writes John MacArthur, “since the political deals that grease the way for unpopular legislation aren’t ordinarily announced in press releases or high-minded op-eds. The nasty facts tend to come out later, after the damage has been done.”

For now, we can only rub our eyes at the spectacle. Look at this headline in The Washington Post after Democrats defeated the Obama-McConnell-Boehner-Republican cabal on Friday: “New questions arise about House Democratic caucus’s loyalty to Obama.”

Say what? Shouldn’t that headline read: “New questions arise about president’s loyalty to House Democratic caucus?” Obama often has treated Democrats in Congress as if they’ve been quarantined for Ebola; they’re more likely to get into the White House if they dress up on Halloween as Republicans and go trick-or-treating at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But now the President demands they play on his side, with McConnell and Boehner as co-captains. The evening before the big vote he showed up at the congressional baseball game, hoping his presence would inspire some last-inning runs during Friday’s showdown. Republicans at the game reportedly cheered when the President arrived, while Democrats looked on in surprise at the unexpected appearance of their often furtive “leader.”

So now the President and his sworn enemies are allied in a bizarre mutual embrace of voodoo economics, assuring us that what’s good for multinational giants is good for struggling Americans trying to pay their bills while waiting below for the benefits of “free trade” to trickle down.

As The New York Times reported, corporate America has been nearly unanimous in its support of the trade agreement. No surprise: their lobbyists and lawyers practically wrote it.

And on Friday their CEOs were loud and clear in voicing their displeasure over the impudence of the House in defying them. The National Association of Manufacturers, among others, declared that manufacturers “will not back down in this fight for expanded trade, for the future of our industry and our country.”

Ah, yes, that’s the argument: what’s good for global giants is good for workers. Yet we’re left to wonder at Rep. Rice’s motive for her turnaround when it betrays the working folk that only a bit earlier she was defending.

The promise of these trade agreements is at best an illusion, at worst, a lie as we learned after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) more than 20 years ago.

The treaty and the devastation of jobs that followed would not have happened without House Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. For 28 years, he represented a working-class district in St. Louis. Then he flipped.

Gephardt supported fast-track for NAFTA and helped clear the way for the passage of fast-track by negotiating with the first President Bush, John R. MacArthur writes, “to insert labor and environmental standards into future negotiations with Mexico and Canada.” But nothing enforceable for workers or the environment ever emerged from those negotiations. It was a hollow promise.

Gephardt wound up voting against the final treaty, but the damage was done and he left Congress to become one of the top corporate lobbyists in Washington. Among his clients has been that great friend of the working class, Goldman Sachs. How many votes cast for the trade deal last Friday came from politicians aware of the prospective job opportunities waiting on the other side of that infamous revolving door? Or are we just getting too cynical?

The issue before us is not “free trade,” which, like any policy, has its pluses and minuses. The issue is that a multilateral trade agreement should not be negotiated in secret, but in the open by our State and Commerce departments, with input from all organizations concerned, including those representing workers and environmentalists.

Then there should come a draft document for all to see, to be laid before the people’s representatives in Congress assembled. If and when a majority of them ratifies the agreement, it can go to the President for signature. This is how democracy should work.

Yet it’s the precise opposite of how this agreement has come to be. We are being asked to believe that the administration can argue with a straight face for a deal conceived in secrecy, drafted largely by corporate mercenaries, kept from public and Congressional view except with burdensome restrictions, then presented to Congress for a vote up or down, neither debate nor amendment allowed. It’s an absolute parody of the process described in the Constitution.

And where, oh where, are the “strict constructionists” on the Republican side? What happened to their proclaimed reverence for every syllable of the Constitution, their insistence that each must be interpreted precisely as understood in 1789?

Instead we are told that we must put aside principle and common sense on the pretended grounds that in the changing world of global economics, it is a necessary procedure. That’s bull, the same nonsense used to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act during the Clinton administration: the word went forth that in a modern economy, controls and regulations were obsolete remnants of a different era, standing in the way of universal prosperity.

As we learned, that fallacious and duplicitous argument led to a windfall for Wall Street bankers who subsequently had to be bailed out by taxpayers, only to survive and return to their predatory habits in this “modern economy.”

This whole affair is outrageous. After 226 years of constitutional government, is this where we’ve finally arrived?

So what can we do against so monstrous a lie? First, call this deal out for what it is, an abomination. Then let the tsunami of popular outrage roll. Tell Congress and the White House what you think. But hurry! Time’s running out, and Obama, McConnell, Boehner and the lobbyists are working overtime to get the locomotive back on the fast-track.

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and Bernard A. Weisberger is a historian who has been by turns a university professor, an editor of American Heritage and a collaborator on several of Bill’s documentaries.

6 comments for “The Hollow ‘Free-Trade’ Promises

  1. Andreas Wirsén
    June 19, 2015 at 03:49

    There is a smorgasbord of prostitution rings working in Washinton D.C., catering to all tastes, some (rightly!) illegal, all bad for the old public image. In these murky waters, national as well as foreign intelligence agencies cross fishing rods, searching for some useful information for when the votes are counted. Ever look into the murky connections of Bobby Baker, errand boy to that foremost “vote counter” in Congress and the Senate, Lyndon Johnson?

    For a quick, entertaining primer, read White House Call Girl by Phil Stanford, about the little-known call girl angle to Watergate.
    Or for the darker side, study the Franklin scandal.

  2. Wm. Boyce
    June 17, 2015 at 10:43

    “After 226 years of constitutional government, is this where we’ve finally arrived?”

    It’s been a sham for some time. We haven’t had a democracy for a while now.

  3. W. R. Knight
    June 16, 2015 at 15:49

    I would not want Obama to “have my back”. I would never trust him behind me.

    Kathleen Rice and others who turn are likely to suffer unintended consequences in voting for “fast track” as more and more voters are becoming disillusioned with Obama’s policies, and his endorsement of candidates in 2016 could easily become a kiss of death.

  4. Roy Marshall
    June 16, 2015 at 13:06

    Call it what it is….Tyranny..!!!!

  5. Zachary Smith
    June 16, 2015 at 12:01

    The treaty and the devastation of jobs that followed would not have happened without House Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. For 28 years, he represented a working-class district in St. Louis. Then he flipped.

    This is why I expect the proctocrats will eventually win on the “fast track” stuff. Our elected representatives are for sale, and too many of them are always looking out for themselves rather than their constituents.

    • Mark
      June 16, 2015 at 12:15

      These people are traitors to their constituents as well as violators of all the US laws which they’ve sworn to uphold.

      It doesn’t say much for the human race or our chances for surviving modern technology — weapons and otherwise — when 95% of us are for sale with our very own personal interests and comfort at stake.

      With some of these technologies in use, or ready to launch, people don’t even consider the ramifications to their own children or grand children and judging by our foreign engagements, they sure don’t care in the least about anyone else.

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