Wheeling and Dealing Led to NAFTA Victory
IF Washington politics were a TV show, this week's episode would be called ``Let's Make a Deal.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
By the time the House voted Wednesday night to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so many deals had been struck between members of Congress and the Clinton administration -
in some cases involving the Mexican government - that a reporter needed an oversized notebook to keep track of who got what.
Critics like Ralph Nader accused Mr. Clinton of ``buying these votes, offering an assorted variety of `pork' and taxpayer-funded goodies in order to obtain one vote after another.''
Administration officials defended the maneuvering as tactically necessary to save an agreement that will be good for the country. ``We've been happy to address the concerns of lawmakers,'' says Jay Ziegler, an administration spokesman on NAFTA. ``But it is a gross misunderstanding of the issues to say that one action gains a vote.''
Some deals went right to the heart of NAFTA itself. To win over a crucial chunk of legislators from Florida, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, for example, the administration arranged to protect citrus, sugar, winter vegetables, wheat, and other commodities.
The irony of an administration negotiating last-minute protectionist measures to save a treaty meant to eliminate protectionism within North America was not lost on observers. But, says Alan Tonelson, research director of the Economic Strategy Institute, the real question raised by the spectacle of dealmaking is what it says about the ``fast track'' process that expedited NAFTA's journey through Congress.
``It raises the question of whether the fast track is appropriate in a democracy,'' he says.
Other deals sought to allay concerns about NAFTA's effect on jobs and the environment. On Tuesday, Rep. Floyd Flake (D) of New York moved into the pro-NAFTA camp after President Clinton promised help with urban programs.
Last month, Rep. Esteban Torres (D) of California, initially a vocal NAFTA opponent, declared his support for NAFTA after Clinton agreed to incorporate into the NAFTA legislation the congressman's proposal for a North American Development Bank (NADBank), which would fund environmental programs on the border and help US workers who lose their jobs because of NAFTA. In recent days, several members who declared for NAFTA mentioned NADBank as one factor in their decision. Favors or pork?
Then there are the favors some members have gotten from top administration officials around the time those members declared their support for NAFTA. To an outside observer, some of these cases look like pork-barrel politics. But all members' offices contacted about these instances denied any linkage between the favor and the support for NAFTA.
Take freshman Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts. He recently got a commitment from Vice President Al Gore Jr. to come to a fund-raiser in his district. On Tuesday, Mr. Meehan declared his support for NAFTA. But the two are not related, says aide Steve Joncas. ``Sometimes perception is reality, but in this case, there's no connection between the two,'' he says. ``Mr. Meehan's decision on NAFTA was the result of a deliberative process about the merits of the agreement.''
Even a week ago, NAFTA opponents appeared to have a solid lead in the House. But by early this week, as members trickled out of their camp, all they could do was watch and weep, unable to match the resources Clinton could offer wooable members.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, a leading NAFTA opponent, declares ruefully that all the wheeling and dealing demeaned the debate. ``It was a bazaar at the end, so people's eyes were off the merits'' of the treaty, Ms. Kaptur says. ``We thought the last election was about change, not business as usual.''