13. Public Input and Congressional Oversight Locked Out of NAFTA

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Sources: THE PROGRESSIVE Date: January 1993 Title: “Citizens Shut Out” Author: Jeremy Weintraub; ROLLING STONE Date: 10/28/93 Title: “Congress: Kill NAFTA-The free-trade agreement is a bad deal” Author: William Grieder; THE TEXAS OBSERVER Date: 6/18/93 Title: “Mexico Buys Free Trade” Author: Don Hazen

SYNOPSIS: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, cited as perhaps one of the most important international trade policies in history, was created in what one member of Congress called “fifteen months of the most secretive trade negotiations I’ve ever monitored.”

Researcher and author Jeremy Weintraub reports, “From the beginning, negotiations were conducted clandestinely, documents classified, and statements veiled, all because, according to Administration officials, NAFTA was far too complex, too dense for the average member of Congress.”

Nonetheless, those same members of Congress were given ninety days to make a decision on whether to support or reject the treaty. It makes sense to ask, if NAFTA is as wide-ranging and complex as touted, how can the “average member of Congress,” let alone his or her constituents, make a reasonable, let alone intelligent, decision on the agreement.

Of course, most constituents won’t have a chance to read the treaty, Weintraub writes, “When NAFTA was completed…the U.S. trade representative’s office began allowing interested citizens to view the 2,000-page document-for one hour.” And while public participation was barred from the negotiation process, one industry expert after another was called in to comment or participate.

Critics also suggest that NAFTA is beginning to look a lot like the Reagan/Bush era’s final coup de grace for the labor movement and manufacturing in the U.S. and Canada. The flow of jobs to Mexico, already a major concern, is expected to increase with NAFTA, creating a long-term downward pressure on wages in the U.S. Meanwhile, labor in Mexico is also suffering. In a well-documented Rolling Stone article, author William Greider describes how American corporations already are trying to break the labor movement in Mexico.

Meanwhile, opponents charge that environmental oversight and standards are expected to devolve to the lowest common denominator under NAFTA, exacerbating the problems of toxic dumping and environmental abuse already evident in the maquiladora zone along the border. While the Mexican government has promised reforms, and has some highly paid public relations firms working to sell the American people on those promises, it has a long history of empty rhetoric.

In an interview published in The Texas Observer, Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity and the “scourge of the lobbying world,” said, “Since 1989, the Mexican government and the various Mexican corporate groups tied to the government such as COESCE [the Mexican Chamber of Commerce] have spent from $25 to $30 million for trade lobbying.” For perspective, that is more than twice what Kuwait spent to persuade Congress to attack Iraq.

While NAFTA has received con­siderable media coverage and will no doubt be one of the top 10 news stories on the Associated Press list for 1993, this nomination deals with the lack of information regarding the secretive trade nego­tiations that went into the develop­ment of the treaty and the lack of public input and congressional oversight.

SSU Censored Researcher: Paul Chambers

Comments: Given the lack of public input and congressional oversight, it was not surprising when NAFTA passed both houses with ease and turned North America into one of the world’s largest free trade zones. The highly touted Al Gore/Ross Perot “debate” didn’t hurt either.

Jeremy Weintraub, an author and researcher for the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, provides an interesting insight into the media’s machinations behind the NAFTA vote.

“To most Americans,” Weintraub wrote, “NAFTA cov­erage in the mainstream media was probably excessive; yet NAFTA suf­fered an alarming degree of censor­ship, albeit unconventional. Rather than question the administration’s assumptions concerning the global economy, reporters seemed to accept tacitly the idea that public debate is an anathema to a healthy NAFTA; as a result, NAFTA cov­erage was largely obfuscating or, at best, superfluous.

“NAFTA hibernated long in the business pages of dailies, safe from public scrutiny-until the House vote neared. Suddenly, NAFTA was headline news and mass media out­lets gave business executives and pro-NAFTA government officials limitless room to explain its signifi­cance. In contrast, the environ­mental, labor, and consumer groups who campaigned tirelessly to high­light NAFTA’s shortcomings couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Television coverage of NAFTA lacked analysis but provided one of the most entertaining debates in recent history: Ross Perot versus Vice President Al Gore. The two combatants fired from their machine-gun-mouths invectives and accusations; and, while little of substance was said, Gore came across better, and the polls reflected an increase in NAFTA support.

“If mainstream coverage had extended beyond the jobs-environ­ment debate and included reports on the lack of citizen input and oversight in creating NAFTA, the public would likely have rejected NAFTA early on as an affront to democracy. With the end of the Cold War, there is now even less justification for closed-door deals.

“Through its irresponsible cov­erage of one issue-NAFTA-the mass media abetted or supported: (a) The conviction, held by reac­tionary government officials, that government knows best what the public needs-thereby entrenching an outmoded, unacceptable rela­tionship between the federal gov­ernment and its citizens. Ironically, the U.S. press repeatedly high­lighted the lack of democratic par­ticipation in ratifying NAFTA in Mexico, while somehow alluding to a contrast in America. (b) Profit­-minded business executives who admitted freely to the Wall Street Journal their plans to move opera­tions to Mexico. These same execu­tives run corporations like DuPont, ranked toxic offender number one by the EPA; and General Electric, a notorious violator of worker rights in Mexico; and they crafted NAFTA with a single goal: global market domination, with no regard for communities, jobs, the environ­ment, or democracy. As a result NAFTA contains many provisions for investment rights but few rights for citizens affected by the “fruits’ of free-trade.

“Many examples illustrate the dour effects of mainstream media’s unprovocative, tired reporting. The most striking indictment is that NAFTA remains obscure in the public’s mind: few know what N-A­F T A stands for, let alone what it stands to do…. Reactions to NAFTA’s passage ranged from “I’ve seen it on TV and listened to them talk about it. But I’m not really aware of what it’s about,’ to `Does it have something to do with Africa,’ to ‘I don’t know anything about it and I’ve never heard of it,’ the last being a candid admission by a university student.

“Moreover, Congressional inte­grity was compromised by the Administration’s pro-NAFTA strong-arm tactics. The Wall Street journal reported strategic meetings between the White House and pro-­NAFTA corporations in the weeks preceding the House vote; these corporations were told to pressure,  with the threat of withholding cam­paign contributions, undecided law­makers into voting for NAFTA. Similarly, the Administration cut various deals to assure passage of NAFTA….

“In all cases, if the mass media had reported NAFTA’s secrecy and resultant narrow agenda, thought­ful members of Congress would not have felt pressured to sign into law an agreement they know to be undemocratic; and their con­stituents would have balked.”

Investigative author Don Hazen interviewed Chuck Lewis, execu­tive director of the Center for Public Integrity, just prior to the release of the Center’s study, “The Trading Game: Inside Lobbying for the North American Free Trade Agreement.” The study was pre­sented at a news conference in Washington, DC, on May 27, 1993.

While the study received limited print media coverage and some cov­erage on NPR and cable television (CNN, C-Span, and CNBC), Hazen speculated as to why it received no network television coverage.

`ABC, NBC and CBS all brought their cameras to the news confer­ence but never aired anything. Apparently, the chief attorney for Mexico sent a letter raising ques­tions about the Center’s forth­coming study to ABC executives prior to May 27th, the date of the press conference.

“The networks snub of this extremely important and compre­hensive study generated consider­able speculation about what really happened. At this point, no one has the answers, but some possible related issues are: 1. In April, Capital Cities/ABC made an offer to buy a recently-privatized televi­sion network in Mexico, which would presumably require some sort of Mexican government approval. 2. CBS, through Chair­man Lawrence Tisch’s Loew’s com­pany, has financial ties to Mexico. 3. General Electric, which owns NBC and also has holding in Mexico, was one of the most aggressive pro-NAFTA companies.

“In a related event, Fox Tele­vision retained the Center as a paid consultant for a `Front Page’ seg­ment on NAFTA lobbying, but after taped interviews were done in several cities, and the piece was produced, it never aired and no reason was given. Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, signed newspaper advertisements pushing for NAFTA in the days prior to the vote.”

Finally, now that the dust has settled on NAFTA, the push is on for GATT. And, once again, as was the case with NAFTA, few in the public know what G-A-T-T stands for, let alone what it stands to do.