Our Democratic Lords

Fast track has gone to the Senate, where its passage,
alas, is assured. "I don't think we stand a chance of defeating it," says one
dispirited union official. Indeed, labor lobbyists aren't even focusing on the
trade legislation itself, but on an expansion of assistance for displaced workers
that they hope the Senate will muster enough votes for, even as fast track
breezes through.

But this anticipated passage is passing strange. The fast-track bill,
giving the president new authority to negotiate trade deals, staggered out of the
Republican-controlled House by a one-vote margin, devoid of almost any Democratic
backing. Now, it has moved to Tom Daschle's Senate--the Democratic side of
Capitol Hill--where, one might think, support for labor rights and environmental
standards in the new global economy would be at least as great as it is in Tom
DeLay's House. But it's not.

Put aside, for a moment, the divisions between northern and southern
Democrats, or rural and urban Democrats, or DLC and labor Democrats. The
least-examined dividing line in the Democratic Party is that between its House and
Senate delegations on the issue of the global economy. This division has been
around for the better part of a decade, and it's only grown more pronounced. In
1994, 60 percent of House Democrats voted against NAFTA, while their Senate
colleagues split evenly on the measure. Last year nearly two-thirds of House
Democrats opposed granting permanent-normal-trade-relations status to China,
while Senate Democrats favored the bill by a 37-to-7 margin.

And now comes fast track, which precisely 90 percent of House Democrats voted
against. Longtime free-trade champions like Sacramento's Robert Matsui and
Harlem's Charles Rangel led the opposition this time around, partly because GOP
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas refused even to deal with them--but
also because they feared entrusting the interests of workers and the environment,
here and abroad, to the tender mercies of the Bush White House. On past votes,
Democratic free-traders in the Senate have been able to make a formidable
alliance with the House's Rangels and Matsuis. On the forthcoming fast-track
vote, however, they stand in splendid isolation not only from their party's core
constituencies but from nearly all their normal allies in the other house.

For some time now, the trade issue has posed a distinct conundrum
for each of the two parties. Republicans have been asked to subordinate their
nationalism to the demands of their business backers--and, the clout of capital
being a hell of a lot more potent than the mystic chords of union, they've done
just that. Democrats have been asked to embrace a laissez-faire order globally
even when they favor a mixed economy here at home. The problem is that this
balance is no more sustainable than Lincoln's house divided. By permitting
corporations to sue (in closed proceedings) to undo U.S. environmental and labor
regulations that might put a check on the absolute sovereignty of trade, fast
track threatens the foundations of the Democrats' domestic programs.

But why does the Democrats' worldview shift the moment they cross the
rotunda? The most obvious answer is that labor is increasingly an election-day
factor on the House side, while money--that is, business--dominates in Senate
campaigns. Unions are able to put hundreds of activists into close House
contests, with considerable success. Most states, however, are too big for field
campaigns to be decisive. What matters at the state level is big money for big
media campaigns.

This distinction, says United Auto Workers lobbyist Barbara Somson, carries
over to life on the Hill. "Senators live in a rarified atmosphere not really open
to congressmen," she says. "House members are always going to things like picnics
in their districts. Not senators--their social life is dominated by
businesspeople. More and more, the Senate is like the House of Lords."

Even Lords, however, need to be held accountable. Fast track should not be a
free-vote in the Senate. A longtime free-trader like John Kerry of
Massachusetts--if he ends up voting for the bill--should have to explain why
every House Democrat from his state was wrong to oppose it. Ditto the dynamic duo
of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, all of whose New York House colleagues
also voted no. Presidential aspirants like Tom Daschle and John Edwards should
tell us why the laissez-faire order they routinely seek to mitigate at home is
nonetheless just what the planet needs. With Senate Democrats on the brink of
disgracing themselves, we can at least insist that theirs be an audible, not a
quiet, disgrace.

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