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The Planet

December 1997, Volume 4, number 10

Fast Track Rejected -- New Hope for Responsible Trade

by John Byrne Barry

Two hours before midnight, on the second Sunday in November, the lights were ablaze on Capitol Hill. Dan Seligman, the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Campaign director, anxiously walked the halls of the House office buildings as President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich continued their last-minute arm-twistings to round up the necessary 218 votes to pass the fast-track bill, H.R. 2621.

Seligman poked his head into the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Houston. Her aide told him they had just received eight calls from Sierra Club members in Houston urging a "no" vote on fast track. When he stopped into the office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D), who represents California's Silicon Valley, her aide greeted him with a grim look and said Lofgren was going to vote "yes" on the bill.

Other Hill staffers showed him faxes or stacks of messages from Sierra Club members in White Plains, Kansas City, San Francisco and Miami. By the wee hours of Monday morning, Clinton realized he was five votes short. After a few hours' sleep the president withdrew the bill, marking the first time in 50 years that Congress -- and the American people -- had turned back a major trade initiative.
"This is a huge victory for environmentalists and labor, and it's a loud wake-up call to President Clinton," said Seligman, "but it won't stop trade or trade agreements. It just means that labor and environmentalists have won the right to sit at the table with Fortune 500 CEOs to write the rules of the global economy."

The Clinton administration had been seeking fast-track authority to negotiate new trade rules including an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to South America and a new set of investor rules called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. (See November Planet for more comprehensive coverage.)

The president can still pursue trade deals -- he has struck more than 100 trade agreements without fast-track authority since 1994 -- but he will not be able to push through big multi-nation trade deals without giving Congress the opportunity to amend them.

"This win allows us to work for responsible trade that protects the environment, communities and working families," said Seligman. Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who led the anti-fast-track forces in the House, has said he will sponsor a trade bill that would require other nations to enforce their own environmental and labor standards or face sanctions.

Clearly, the labor movement -- with its message that one-sided trade pacts threaten jobs and wages -- carried the big load in this battle. But labor representatives consistently included environmental protection as a reason for opposing the trade bill. And in congressional districts where the Club focused its resources -- regions where the economy has traditionally benefited from trade, but environmental values run deep -- the environmental message helped carry the day.

One such area was San Francisco, where Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) sparked a last-minute surge of environmental opposition to fast track by declaring her position just days before the scheduled vote. Reflecting growing constituent anxiety about the environmental impacts of corporate-led globalization, Pelosi reversed a 10-year record of support for free-trade causes. "I cannot support a fast track which does not include environment as a core issue," she said. "Those who relegate the environment to secondary status are on the wrong side of the future."

And in New York City's northern suburbs, Rep. Nita Lowey (D) all but sealed fast track's fate by declaring her opposition the day before Clinton withdrew his legislation. That morning, the local newspaper published a letter to the editor opposing fast track by volunteer George Klein, chair of the Atlantic Chapter's Lower Hudson Group.

"We must ensure that our trade policies address labor, environmental and food-safety issues," said Lowey. "This fast track fails that fundamental test."

In addition to Pelosi and Lowey, Seligman applauded Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Bill Luther (D-Minn.), Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), Sue Kelly (D-N.Y.) and Adam Smith (D- Wash.) for taking a stand against fast track. He also thanked Club activists who pitched in over the past three months -- speaking at rallies, lobbying representatives, writing letters to the editor, organizing phone banks. "We won because we kept fighting till the end," he said.

For more information: Contact Dan Seligman at (202) 675-2387;

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