Today the House of Representatives narrowly passed a procedural rule, inserted into an unrelated legislative package last night, that gives defenders of the unpopular status quo trade model six weeks to try to revive the Fast Track package that was put on life support last Friday. They will not succeed so long as they continue to face the wall of dogged, diverse grassroots pressure that delivered Friday’s landmark fair trade victory.
Even so, the Obama administration and congressional proponents of more-of-the-same trade deals will try to badger the many members of Congress who voted down the Fast Track package into switching their votes. They will likely reiterate the tired litany of false promises that members of Congress and the U.S. public have heard time and again when being sold unpopular trade pacts.
In a poignant speech before today’s vote, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) warned against trusting such promises. In 1993, Rep. Hastings cast a controversial vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – the deal that spawned the status quo trade model that Fast Track would expand. Today, Hastings stated:
In the 20 plus years that I’ve served in this body, I can think of only three votes which I deeply regret making and one of those was in support of NAFTA. In the years since, I’ve seen, after NAFTA, a decrease in American jobs, a rollback of critical environmental protections, here and in Mexico where I was promised that the environmental circumstances in the maquiladoras would be cleared up – and they were not – and a stagnation of wages that has prevented the financial upward mobility of working class and middle class Americans and has ground poor Americans into poverty beyond belief.
Rep. Hastings made clear that he has learned from NAFTA’s broken promises and urged his colleagues to stand firm by continuing to oppose Fast Track’s expansion of the trade status quo:
If we’re going to create trade policy that is worthy of future generations, then we must ensure that policy strengthens—not weakens—labor rights. It must strengthen—not weaken—environmental protections. It must ensure other countries responsibility to adhere to basic human rights. It must expand and strengthen our middle class, not squeeze hardworking Americans in favor of corporate interests. The legislation included in this rule today is part of a trade package that does nothing to bolster these important priorities.
If past is precedent, the White House and congressional leadership will also try to make special deals with members of Congress who voted against the Fast Track package on Friday, offering promises of political cover or special goodies – from bridges to import safeguards – if they would be willing to face the wrath of their constituents and flip-flop on Fast Track. But a review of the last two decades of trade-vote dealmaking reveals that such promises made to extract unpopular trade votes have also been consistently broken, leaving members of Congress exposed to voters’ anger over their decision to defy the opinion and interests of the majority.
Here again, Rep. Hastings’ experience offers a cautionary tale. In deciding how to vote on NAFTA, Florida representatives like Hastings were concerned that the deal could lead to an influx of underpriced tomatoes from Mexico, displacing Florida’s tomato farmers and the state’s many tomato-related jobs. To extract their votes, the Clinton administration promised Florida representatives that the U.S. government would take measures to safeguard Florida tomato growers if NAFTA led to a surge in tomato imports.
The Clinton administration never fulfilled this promise. Before NAFTA, Florida had a $700 million tomato industry with 250 growers. Within two years of NAFTA, tomato imports from Mexico soared, Florida’s tomato revenues dropped to $400 million and the state’s tomato industry shrank to just 100 growers. No meaningful import safeguards were enacted by the Clinton administration, the George W. Bush administration or the Obama administration. Today, imports of tomatoes from Mexico are up 247 percent since NAFTA’s implementation. Florida’s tomato growers have now filed a lawsuit to obtain the safeguards that they, and Florida’s representatives, were promised 22 years ago.
Rep. Hastings learned the hard way that promises used to extract “yes” votes on unpopular trade deals rarely materialize. His colleagues have the opportunity to learn the easy way – by heeding Rep. Hastings’ warning and maintaining opposition to Fast Track.