WASHINGTON — IF Washington politics were a TV show, this week's episode would be called ``Let's Make a Deal.''
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.''
Though anti-NAFTA forces could cry that the playing field wasn't level, they were far from powerless. The labor lobby wields tremendous financial clout at election time, and some members said they resented the strong-arm tactics of some unionists.
One anti-NAFTA lawmaker, Rep. Tom Andrews (D) of Maine, was so incensed by what he called ``subtle and not-so-subtle threats'' against him from old labor allies that he vowed never to accept any more campaign contributions from labor, saying he wanted no doubt about his motives for voting against NAFTA.
Some groups opposing NAFTA, such as Mr. Nader's Public Citizen and the Citizens Trade Coalition, led by former Rep. Jim Jontz, rode the anti-pork theme as they sought to sway the public against pro-NAFTA members of Congress. A packet of information put out by the two groups went to journalists with the headline, ``NAFTA Vote `Buying' to Cost Taxpayers Billions.''
One example of alleged pork highlighted by the document was an authorization for $10 million written into the NAFTA implementing legislation to build a ``center for the study of Western Hemispheric trade'' in Texas. The text claims that the center will be built in Austin, which is represented by veteran Democratic Rep. J.J. Pickle. Do charges stand up?
When asked how his group knew that the center would be built in Mr. Pickle's district, Mr. Jontz replies that he had heard this from ``lots of people,'' but would not name names. ``Let's just wait and see where it goes,'' Jontz says. A spokesman for Pickle says it has not been determined where the center will be built. Furthermore, the spokesman says, Pickle's vote for NAFTA didn't need to be ``bought'' - he had declared early on that he supported the treaty.
Another purported example of NAFTA pork the group highlighted involved Rep. Gene Green (D) of Texas. According to a Houston Post article, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena visited Houston recently and promised help in getting $10 million to build a bridge over a rail yard in East Houston. The article implied the administration was trying to buy Mr. Green's vote with the promise. But on Wednesday, he came out against NAFTA.
In an acknowledged example of a member using the NAFTA vote to further his personal agenda, Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida agreed to vote for the treaty after the administration pulled some strings to get the Mexican government to agree to extradite a man who had raped a five-year-old girl. The man is still at large, but the case holds particular significance for Mr. Shaw - the girl is the niece of an aide.
Shaw decided to vote ``yes'' on NAFTA after he got a call Wednesday from Mexican Attorney General Jorge Carpizo with the extradition promise.
In recent days, White House aide Ziegler reports, the administration has been able to exercise a bit of leverage with Mexico because of NAFTA. The Mexican government views NAFTA as vital to the country's economic future, and so when it looked as if the treaty might not pass, Mexico City was willing to provide lots of help. ``We have been able in the last few days to reach agreement on the extradition of several prisoners,'' Ziegler says.
Now that the administration's NAFTA shopping spree is over, Clinton must remember what he promised everybody and start paying up. One member who won't let Clinton forget what he owes is Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the No. 2 Republican in the House. Clinton had promised he would write letters of support for Republicans who vote for NAFTA, and now the Republican whip, usually a critic of the administration, is making sure Clinton follows through. It is a moment that Mr. Gingrich is no doubt savoring.