[Publisher's Note] | Nonsense Brokers, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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“Rep. Kathleen Rice last week reversed her opposition to fast-track the TPP. If history repeats itself she won’t be the only member of Congress to betray her working class and labor-union supporters.”

A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on June 12, 2015.

The vote buying to pass fast-track authority in the House of Representatives—legislation that will speed up secret negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement so dear to President Obama and his Wall Street and corporate allies—has evidently begun in earnest. The latest recipient of White House largesse, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D., N.Y.) last week reversed her opposition to fast-track, already approved by the Senate, and if history repeats itself she won’t be the only member of Congress to betray her working class and labor-union supporters.

We can’t yet know what was promised to Rice, 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. Nevertheless, we can assume that something is rotten in Rice’s district.

For public consumption, Rice chose the high-minded sophistry of an op-ed, published on June 6 in The Hill, to explain her shift. She acknowledged that she earlier signed a letter to the president “expressing deep concern” about granting fast-track authority because she “wasn’t confident” that it “would protect my district’s working families.”

And now? Well, she writes, “my confidence has changed.” Problems of sense aside, there’s something suspicious about this phrase. Could she mean that her self-confidence has been undermined by pressure from the administration? Or has somebody played a confidence trick on her? Whatever it is, she’s been influenced by “more than five months of trade briefings, reviews of classified trade documents, and extensive conversations with those brokering” the TPP.

I can just imagine what these “brokers” have been telling her, since the same sort of “conversations” went on during Bill Clinton’s wild and woolly campaign to round up votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Back then, the House’s Democratic leadership, under the tutelage of Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, was conning itself that NAFTA could be used to improve the environment along the Rio Grande and raise living standards and wages south of the border to a level closer to America’s.

Gephardt had set the tone of naïveté—or cynicism, if you prefer—when, at the first President Bush’s behest, he supported fast-track for NAFTA and smoothed its passage in 1991. At the time, the St. Louis congressman thought he could become president, so to appear more worthy of corporate campaign contributions, he “negotiated” with the elder Bush to insert labor and environment standards into future negotiations with Mexico and Canada.

Bush’s people were prepared to agree, since the negotiating would be done in secret and nothing enforceable would come of an “agreement” with Gephardt anyway. The whole point of moving production to Mexico is to take advantage of low wages and lax environmental rules.

Gephardt got nothing but lip service in exchange for his crucial vote. By the time President Clinton took over the NAFTA portfolio, opposition to the agreement within the Democratic Party had been weakened by Gephardt’s foolish gambit. But Clinton also faced right-wing Republican opposition, as well as that of Ross Perot, the billionaire independent who, when he ran for president in 1992, got 19 percent of the popular vote. Clinton had to purchase “peelable” Democratic votes to put NAFTA over the finish line.

Assisted by his chief lobbyists, Mickey Kantor, William Daley and Rahm Emmanuel, he bought members of the Florida delegation by committing the National School Lunch Program to buy more Florida tomatoes and corn; he bought the vote of Rep. Esteban Torres (D., Calif.) by creating the North American Development Bank, supposedly to fund infrastructure projects on the border; and he bought the vote of Rep. Bill Brewster (D., Okla.) by agreeing to go duck hunting with him and have their picture taken.

Like Gephardt, Kathleen Rice seems to think she’s onto something new: The Senate’s TPP legislation “outlines unprecedented requirements to address the worker-protection problems of NAFTA. It sets high labor and environmental standards, and ensures that trade sanctions can be imposed on any country that fails to meet these marks.”

I wish I knew the going rate for such nonsense.

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