One of the leading Congressional critics of free trade — and one of the very few Congressional critics of millennial, global, everything-for-sale capitalism — is Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders. An avowed social democrat, Sanders was elected to the House in 1990 as an independent, and has been re-elected ever since with the near-universal support of Vermont Democrats. Sanders has been particularly active as a founder and leader of the House Progressive Caucus, which has rallied support for single-payer health care, reducing military and CIA spending, slashing corporate subsidies, reinstituting a more progressive tax code and promoting the public financing of political campaigns. He’s considering a candidacy next year against Republican Senator James Jeffords — though if he opts to stay in the House, and if the Democrats regain control, Sanders would become a real power on the House Banking Committee, not the kind of job a left-progressive could easily walk away from.
Harold Meyerson spoke with Sanders in San Diego earlier this month.
L.A. WEEKLY: We’re a couple of weeks away from the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. In general, what would you like to see the American position be on issues of trade and the global economy?
CONGRESSMAN SANDERS: I have been one of the strongest critics of American trade policy, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the role that we’re playing in the global economy. In fact, just two weeks ago we won a major amendment in the Banking Committee, dealing with the issue of debt forgiveness. And what Mr. Clinton and many Republicans wanted to do is move forward slowly in terms of debt forgiveness of some of the poorest countries on Earth, but tie the debt forgiveness to IMF austerity programs [which require the countries to slash social spending]. And what we were able to do in the committee, with some Republican support, is to say, “Debt relief, debt forgiveness, yes, but the IMF austerity program should have nothing to do with that.”
What some of us want to see is the global economy work for the average American and not just for the large financial institutions. And that certainly is not the case right now. That calls for radical changes in our trade policy, essentially, doing away with NAFTA and our most-favored-nation status with China, and moving toward what we call a “fair-trade policy,” rather than a so-called “free-trade policy.”
In terms of the WTO, we have a lot of problems with the WTO’s ability to override environmental and labor legislation in this country. I don’t think that it is proper for a bureaucracy meeting in secret to be able to override democratic decisions being made in this country. Let me give you an example: It is very likely that if international laws enforced through the WTO had existed 10 or 15 years ago, the effort to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa would not have been successful. What South Africa and their friends could have argued is that the efforts of cities, states and the federal government to limit and halt the economic relationship that existed between corporations and the South African government would have been in violation of international trade agreements.
In the state of Massachusetts within the last couple of years, their legislature said that any corporation doing business in Burma — the military dictatorship in Burma — would not be able to bid on contracts in Massachusetts. And that was taken to the WTO.
So the ability of communities, cities, states or even the national government to stand up to oppression and anti-democratic governments through economic boycotts and so forth would be challenged as a violation of international trade. The bottom line is, through the WTO and our trade agreements, what we want to make certain is that actions are taken that benefit ordinary people, not just the multinationals.
WEEKLY: Does that require changing who sits at the table in the WTO? Does that require the WTO to adopt, as part of its core mission, the enforcement of labor and environmental standards? What sorts of structural reforms would make sense?
SANDERS: Three or four years ago, [Massachusetts Congressman] Barney Frank and I passed an important amendment which said that the United States representative to the IMF should use, in this case, her voice and vote in opposition to any loan agreements that went to countries that did not respect internationally recognized labor rights. Pretty strong amendment.
Well, what we have since found out is that the United States has veto power over the IMF. Essentially, we can control what that institution does. We had the person who was the representative come before our committee, and I said, “Well, here’s a law — how many times have you used your voice and vote to do this?”
Well, it turns out that they [the IMF board] don’t have votes, basically very few votes. And the amendment that we passed was not really being acted upon.
The bottom line is that you’re not going to have a change in our position in the IMF unless the Clinton administration makes some substantial changes. And right now, the Clinton administration’s position is the position of corporate America. And we’ve got a long way to go to try to change that.