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Feingold Weighs In on the Hen House Deal

From Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.)'s statement entered into the Congressional Record last Thursday:

Mr. FEINGOLD. Mr. President, last week, amid great fanfare, several Members of the House and Senate announced they had reached an agreement with the administration on language that facilitates the implementation of two trade agreements, and paves the way for the possible consideration of additional trade agreements as well as the extension of so-called fast-track trade agreement implementing authority.

No sooner had the announcement been made than questions were raised about just what the agreement was. A comparison of the representations made by the parties to the agreement revealed several potentially contradictory interpretations of the deal. And when details of the agreement were sought, it was discovered that there really weren't any, that what the parties had agreed to was a set of principles. We now understand that the actual details of the agreement may not be fully spelled out until legislation implementing the trade agreements is presented to Congress for approval. Until then, everyone is free to spin this agreement as they wish.

Given the parties that were involved, hearing the announcement was a bit like hearing that the foxes and wolves had reached a deal on guarding the hen house. For the most part, the people who were negotiating this agreement have a nearly unbroken record of supporting the deeply flawed trade policies of the past decade and more. From the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT, which created the World Trade Organization, to granting China permanent Most Favored Nation status, to the more recent agreements like the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the actors in this deal have all been singing from the same hymn book. While I don't question the good intentions of those who were involved, no one should have expected last week's announcement to produce significant changes to that hymn book.

Our trade policy has been disastrous. It has contributed to the loss of several million family-supporting jobs in this country. It has left communities across my State devastated, and I know the same is true in communities around this country.

Our trade deficit reaches new heights every year, as we send more and more of our wealth overseas, much of it in the form of factories that provided entire communities with decent, good-paying jobs. I hold listening sessions in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties every year. This is my 15th year holding those listening sessions, listening to tens of thousands of people from all over Wisconsin. I completed my 1000th of those sessions last fall, and I can tell you that there is nearly universal frustration and anger with the trade policies we have pursued since the late 1980s. Even among those who would have called themselves traditional free-traders, it is increasingly obvious that the so-called NAFTA model of trade has been a tragic failure.

I voted against NAFTA, GATT, and permanent most favored nation status for China, in great part because I felt they were bad deals for Wisconsin businesses and Wisconsin workers. At the time I voted against those agreements, I thought they would result in lost jobs for my State. But, as I have noted before, even as an opponent of those trade agreements, I had no idea just how bad things would be. Nor does the problem end with the loss of businesses and jobs. The model on which our recent trade agreements have been based fundamentally undermines our democratic institutions. It replaces the judgment of the people, as reflected in the laws and standards set forth by their elected representatives, with rules written by organizations dominated by multinational corporations. Food, environmental, and safety standards set by our democratic institutions are subject to challenge if they conflict with those approved by unelected international trade bureaucracies. Even laws that require the government to use our tax dollars to buy goods made here, rather than overseas, can be challenged.

Our trade policy is a mess, and it needs to be fixed.

As bad as our trade policies have been, they have not been partisan policies. I wish they were. I wish I could lay the blame at the feet of our colleagues in the other party. But Members of both parties have aided and abetted these flawed policies. Presidents of both parties have advanced them, and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have approved them.

It should not come as a shock to anyone, then, that while the agreement announced last week was bipartisan, because it was negotiated by people who largely supported the flawed trade agreements of recent years, it fails to address in a meaningful way the concerns of those who have opposed those same agreements.

It is noteworthy that while the announced agreement is primarily related to enhancing international worker standards, not a single union has endorsed it. While the agreement reportedly enhances international environmental standards, no environmental groups have endorsed it. Nor have those business groups that have been critical of our trade policies.

We are making progress, albeit slow progress, in educating the public and policymakers on the true nature of our trade agreements. In the past, when opponents of these flawed trade deals raised questions about the actual provisions in those agreements, supporters were quick to play the free trade card and label those who questioned the agreements as ``protectionist.''

This charge resonated with many of our newspaper editorial boards, who have parroted the elegant theories of 18th century economist Adam Smith. But the trade agreements into which we have entered in recent years are not simply reductions in tariffs, as Adam Smith envisioned. If these agreements were just reductions in tariffs, they could be implemented by a bill that is only one or two pages long. Of course, that is not the case. These agreements are lengthy. The bills that implement them are so massive as to be almost bullet proof. And the reason is that they go far beyond merely lowering tariffs. As Thea Lee wrote in the Wall Stree Journal:

“We should all understand by now that modern, (post-NAFTA) free-trade agreements are not just about lowering tariffs. They are about changing the conditions attached to trade liberalization, in ways that benefit some players and hurt others. These are not your textbook free-trade deals. These are finely orchestrated special-interest deals that boost the profits and power of multinational corporations, leaving workers, family farmers, many small businesses, and the environment more vulnerable than ever.”

Increasingly, some who blindly accepted these trade agreements in the past now are beginning to read the fine print. They recognize the role these agreements have played in our skyrocketing trade deficits and the loss of millions of jobs. They understand that if we are to have a sustainable trade policy, then we must dramatically alter the NAFTA model of trade on which our recent trade agreements are based.

The agreement announced last week does not do that. And until our trade agreements better reflect a more sustainable relationship with our trading partners as well as the broader interests of our own national priorities--keeping businesses and good-paying jobs here, ensuring strong protections for our environment, our food safety, and even the ability of our democratic institutions to set those national priorities--I will continue to oppose them.

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