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A Rich Defection 

Harman sides with Bush on free trade

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
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Jane Harman used to be an endangered Democrat in a marginally Republican district. Used to be. Her Venice--to--San Pedro district’s boundaries changed for the better this year with the addition of dependable Democrats in Lennox and Wilmington. If only she were as dependable as they.

Over the weekend, Harman was one of 25 Democrats who deserted the party and organized labor, not to mention millions of workers both here and abroad, in supporting a Republican-backed trade bill. With her help, President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans won a hairsbreadth three-vote victory in Saturday‘s post-midnight trade showdown. Bush is now poised to get the broadest possible latitude in negotiating international-trade agreements. Passage of this so-called fast-track or trade-promotion authority would limit Congress’ role in shaping future trade agreements to a simple yea or nay. Which means that members of Congress could do nothing to amend (read: improve) any trade pact that limits the rights of foreign workers. Nor could they add protections for American consumers or for such purposes as saving Amazon rain forests.

And given W.‘s record of siding with corporations and magnates, it’s safe to assume that his trade pact might fall short in looking after workers and the environment. Maybe Harman was forgetting her party and thinking instead of her personal-investment portfolio -- she is the spouse of the multimillionaire who owns Harman-Kardon, an audio-equipment maker that has moved jobs to Mexico.

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Before Bush claims victory, the Senate still has to concur with the House, but Bush probably has the votes there as well, and, yes, they include some Democrats.

Harman was one of just four Democrats to shift from opposition to support on fast track since an earlier version of the House bill passed by one vote last December.

The vote‘s timing -- at 3:30 a.m., just before the House recessed for August -- took opponents by surprise. Environmentalists and labor unions had planned to lobby against passage (in person and through TV ads) during the recess, expecting consideration around Labor Day.

Harman’s vote -- though a switch from December -- came as less of a shock, say advocates who prefer “fair trade” to Bush‘s unfettered “free trade.”

“We tried to arrange some meetings, but she didn’t want to talk to anyone,” says Sierra Club activist Mark Haskin. His group worries about trade treaties that would undermine the enforcement of environmental and health laws. And for good reason, based on what has happened with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under provisions of NAFTA, Canada‘s Methanex corporation has filed a billion-dollar suit claiming that California can’t ban the carcinogenic gas additive MTBE because that action would amount to erecting an illegal trade barrier.

Bush has sought fast-track authority before resuming stalled negotiations with Chile and other Andean countries --step one toward his goal of a 31-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Trade is pivotal in Harman‘s district, which includes LAX and abuts the Port of Los Angeles. But that hasn’t spared her district from the harms of NAFTA. Xerox recently shifted the work of 400 circuit-board assemblers to Mexico. Douglas Furniture of Redondo Beach moved production to a Baja maquiladora this year, displacing 160. And Honeywell sent almost 600 jobs southward from its Torrance turbocharger plant.

At the northern end of the district (Venice, West L.A., etc.), there‘s widespread concern about “runaway production” of film and TV to foreign sites that offer the lure of lower costs and (in Canada’s case) government subsidies. That‘s why one of the appeals to Harman came from John Connolly, president of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists.

On the other side, multinational corporations and local chambers of commerce have pressed for passage. They are loath to see future trade pacts subjected to prolonged debate or encumbered with restrictions.

In a release explaining her shift, Harman stressed the expansion of help for U.S. workers who lose their jobs. This aid (re-training and moving allowances, etc.) was expanded to cover workers longer (up from 52 weeks to 78). But not, as many Democrats (and some Republicans) had hoped, to cover more workers. The final bill removed aid-eligibility for high-tech contract workers and those in “downstream” areas such as marketing or distribution.

Harman also contended that the bill placed environmental and labor concerns on an equal legal footing with those of corporate America. Not so, said Lori Wallach of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen organization. She called Harman‘s contention “a lie,” citing eleventh-hour amendments by Texas Senator Phil Gramm. In the House bill, for example, the president is forbidden from using trade sanctions or fines to protect the rights of foreign workers, which would sabotage efforts to turn away products of sweatshops and child labor and other unwanted imports.

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