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Senate Sidetracking on Fast Track

April 11 2002

A funny thing happened on the way to the Fast Track vote. Someone committed the sin of truth. There’s a reason the measure that slipped through the House by a single vote is stuck in the Senate. Seems Democrats are concerned about health coverage for “displaced workers.” That’s right. Displaced workers. Read: Americans who will lose their jobs as a result of this legislation.

But didn’t the President promise “we will be prosperous if we embrace free trade”? Or did that apply to someone else? Like the countries he had in mind last week when he said, “trade is in the interest of those nations who struggle with poverty”? Question, Mr. President: Exactly whose interest is it you were elected to ensure?

For impoverished nations, the efficacy of Mr. Bush’s version of free trade is debatable. The low-wage labor conditions that make international investment attractive preclude the kind of progress that would allow locals to ever buy the products they produce. Job creation, yes. But not exactly a fast track out of poverty.

As for its effects back at home, zoom in on North Carolina. Over the last five years, while the rest of the country was sipping Starbucks and buying up dot.com stock, 31% of that state’s jobs vanished. Seventy-six textile mills closed, and 57,000 North Carolinians became “displaced workers.” Reason: a trade pact called NAFTA that has cost 615,000 textile and apparel jobs nationwide since 1994. If the President wins his way, he’ll be able to super-size that folly by hemispheric dimensions - and Congress’ hands will be bound.

Consider then the lunacy of the current debate. Senators from both sides admit that expanding the Bush brand of trade will cost American jobs. But rather than revisiting the flawed thesis, they quibble about how to make unemployment most comfortable - as if it’s beyond their power to prevent.

The House-passed bill includes a kindly euphemistic provision for “Trade Adjustment Assistance.” Included therein, a standard regimen of federal pain medication - unemployment insurance, job training, temporary health care. Senate Democrats, ever eager to grow government, want to provide broader coverage through the existing COBRA program. This week, in a luncheon with Tom Daschle, business leaders lobbying for Fast Track had the nerve to complain that the Democrats’ plan would be too costly. This from the crowd replacing North Carolinians with Indonesians.

Thus the impasse - and the insanity. President Bush wants a final vote by April 22. Daschle says he won’t budge “until the White House starts seriously negotiating” - not on job losses but on health care.

Seems to the common sense observer that the best way to break that stalemate is to not kill off American jobs in the first place. But then common sense is a short-supply commodity on Capitol Hill.

There is one bright spot - unfortunately predicated either on Senate Democrats’ insight or sense of irony. One fast track lobbyist told Congress Daily, “COBRA [the expanded coverage liberals favor] isn’t the savior of this bill. If anything, it’s the killer. If COBRA is in there, you’ll lost most of the Republicans and some of the Democrats.”

Could it be? Is it possible that what looks to be a distraction is in fact a strategic deal-breaker embedded by Democrats who know better than to defy the unions? Not likely, since the first scenario - quarreling over the details of a problem they’re creating - seems painfully characteristic of our legislators. But for today, indulge the hope that a handful of Senators can see the obvious and while too cowardly to oppose it on principle are wily enough to derail a truly disastrous bill.

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