Word was out in May that the Clinton administration was offering enticements to undecided congressional Democrats in order to win enough votes to permanently normalize trade with China--which the White House had singled out as key to the Clinton foreign policy legacy. After all, during the North American Free Trade Agreement vote in 1993, the Clinton White House threw open the legislative pork barrel, offering up tasty items to encourage hesitant Democrats to sign onto the free trade agreement.
This time, Representative Martin Frost, notably the third-most powerful Democrat in the House, came up a winner. Frost secured an agreement to preserve 5,000 jobs at a Northrop Grumman plant in his central Texas district. An aide said the company had been considering moving out of its outdated Navy-owned facilities. After timely negotiations with the Navy, the company agreed to continue operating in Grand Prairie, Texas.
But for the most part, the kind of favors being doled out this time were more pork rinds than pork, in the words of one observer. Instead of promises that funding for a local weather station would be reinstated, Representative Bud Cramer of Alabama received the Commerce Department's word that they would look into it. Instead of getting approval of a new gas pipeline into El Paso, Representative Silvestre Reyes was told the Environmental Protection Agency would make some kind of decision soon. Representative Ken Bentsen of Houston got a commission (a commission!) to look into how effective programs to help displaced workers are. "It is not that the member wants or expects to get something. They just want to say he/she got something," said Scott Nova, the director of Citizens Trade Campaign.
It appears there wasn't a single bridge secured, nor were any highway improvements made--not even an exit ramp. (Caution on the exit ramps: California Representative Matthew Martinez lost his seat this March to a primary challenger backed by labor unions that were angry Martinez had exchanged a 1997 trade vote for a highway exit ramp that still hasn't been built.) Considering that there is only half a year left in this administration's reign--and that the White House has a poor record in following through on past promises--lawmakers who were given "commitments" of some sort may not see results anytime soon.
Take Representative Benjamin Cardin, whose office says he received "certain commitments to help enforce existing trade laws" related to steel. Presumably, these agreements pertain to measures to keep other countries from unloading their steel at cut-rate prices in the United States. But as the Clinton administration hasn't been all that sensitive to the plight of steelworkers in the past few years, residents of Cardin's district who work for the Bethlehem Steel mill near Baltimore shouldn't pop open the six-pack.
The good thing about a tough vote is that it affords lawmakers the rare opportunity to get face time with the president--to discuss that freeway back home and maybe even get something done about it. It should be said, lawmakers and the administration insisted that during the China vote there were no quid pro quos. Plus, congressional observers note that very often the lawmakers looking to be persuaded by a little deal making aren't those who most strongly object to the administration's position, but in fact are already leaning in that direction.
And sometimes pork rinds are better than nothing. First-term Congressman Mike Thompson of California was able to swing a new zip code for a rural town in his district mistakenly given the same zip code as a nearby city. While his chief of staff said Thompson had lobbied for the new zip code for years as a state lawmaker and maintained that the deal was cemented after an unrelated conversation with the postmaster general, the congressman was able to bring it up with the White House. As Thompson's aide put it, "When the White House called regarding China trade, the congressman said, 'Nice that you call now; we had a hard time getting phone calls returned before.'" ¤