Sandy Levin, a veteran Democratic congressman from a heavily unionized district in suburban Detroit, has a problem. Crowded into his Capitol Hill office are a couple dozen union representatives who have come to talk to him about China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It's a testy, uncomfortable moment; the union reps are not happy.
The tension actually transcends the rankling disagreement over granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status, the de facto prerequisite to China's entry into the WTO. The two sides can't even agree how to discuss the question. Levin wants to talk about the arcana of trade ministerials, nontariff trade barriers, and a dozen other things. But his visitors have already made up their minds, thank you, and they've come to state their views, not to debate. Levin "was going on in some detail," recalls Al Benchich, the head of a United Auto Workers (UAW) local in Levin's district. "And finally one of the brothers gets up and says, 'You're talking over our heads on the details here. We're here to let you know that we're not going to support those who don't support us.'" Another meeting participant says, "He was going on and on in this professorial manner. And we were saying, 'We want to know where you stand. What are you going to do?' But he just went around and around. Finally the leader of one of the large GM locals got up and said, 'I'm leaving,' and we followed her out."
Mention Levin's name to Chuck Harple, the national legislative director of the Teamsters, and a flood of antagonism rumbles forth: "[Levin] should get in his car and take a tour of Michigan and see what these [trade] agreements have done to his state... . He's absolutely off the reservation. And he just gets fighting mad whenever you disagree with him... . He gets all red in the face... . I've just been kicked out of his office too much. There's not a lot of love between us and him."
What's gotten Levin into all this trouble is his proposal to couple PNTR's passage with the establishment of a new commission (modeled on the Helsinki Commission, which monitored human rights behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War) to oversee China's trade compliance and its record on human rights. It's a classic bridging proposal. And it's also a classic Sandy Levin proposal. But to his opponents, it's a "fig leaf," a dodge, a useful cover for waverers who'd like to vote for PNTR anyway. Defeating China's permanent normal trading status is the number-one legislative priority for organized labor this year. And it's especially important to big industrial unions, like the UAW and the Teamsters, who are heavily represented in Levin's district. By early May, the Clinton administration had signaled its strong support for Levin's proposal, while stopping short of any formal endorsement. But with his proposal still ignored or attacked by partisans on both sides of the debate, Levin himself had come to embody his party's inability to hash out a forward-looking and progressive middle ground on the all-important issues of trade and globalization.
Levin, who will turn 69 later this year, was first elected to Congress in 1982 (his younger brother Carl has represented Michigan in the Senate since 1978). But his political career stretches back much further: He was first elected to the Michigan Senate in 1964 and was narrowly defeated in races for governor in 1970 and 1974. Today, he is in line to become the Trade Subcommittee chairman of Ways and Means if the Democrats retake the House. After almost two decades in Congress, Levin holds a peculiar place among his House colleagues. He clearly lacks both the desire and the temperament to become one of the Democratic caucus's leaders or most visible members. But he is far more than just another long-serving backbencher. "People don't fully realize his role," says Congressman Barney Frank, who opposes PNTR but is lavish in his praise for Levin. "Sandy's not a guy who's out in front a lot, but intellectually he's been very important. He's very close to Gephardt. And he's been one of Gephardt's main advisers on [trade]." "He's ... a policy wonk," says a former associate. "On any issue in Congress, you've got your specialists. They're the people who know the details. The swing voters will look to those people to know which way to vote. And Sandy's one of those guys on labor [and trade]."
In conversations with Levin, different people find him either thoughtful and engaging or simply long-winded (I place myself in the former category). But the sort of equivocal, detailoriented, middle-ground approach he's taking on China and the WTO is clearly as much a matter of temperament as it is of ideology. On the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and fast track in 1997, Levin struggled to cobble together some point of compromise before eventually voting against each bill. "It drives these guys nuts," says the same former associate. "They want him to be an easy ally. [They] get frustrated. They think he's graying the line." Indeed, graying the line is exactly what labor thinks he's doing on China/WTO. So just what is Levin's line on trade and globalization?
Levin is part of a group that might best be called trade hawks. They view international trade as either a positive good in principle or simply as a reality to be reckoned with; but in either case, they want to cut the best deals possible. For the trade hawks, it is important to articulate meaningful rules of engagement and to build up international institutions, like the WTO, which can serve as credible venues for conflict resolution and enforcement.
Few would disagree that on paper the Sino-American bilateral agreement signed last November 15 in Beijing grants the United States substantial new access to the Chinese market. Support of or opposition to the agreement hinges on two basic questions: first, whether the central authorities in China will prove both willing and (just as importantly) able to enforce the agreement within their own country; and second, whether the advantages gained under the agreement outweigh losing the leverage of annually reviewing China's NTR status. For PNTR's opponents, maintaining that leverage is essential. "I don't know why Congress would give up its power and authority," says Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, an adamant opponent of PNTR. "The real question is accountability. If we give [the oversight process] to a commission, there's no accountability. The only way to [have accountability] is to have the vote every year. To do anything else would be uncivilized."
But PNTR supporters like Levin wonder, what leverage? "I don't think the annual review has provided much leverage," he told me in mid-April. "And I don't see it providing any in the future. No one has come up with a plan for how it would be used. The main battle cry is 'keep it,' but there isn't any articulation of how it would work. Are we going to cut it off this year? Next year? There's no plan... . I don't see what we gain by keeping it."
That reasoning has a persuasive logic. Today, Chinese imports are basically free to flow into American markets, while American exports to China face a myriad of barriers, both formal and informal. The Sino-American bilateral agreement provides an opportunity to partially level this playing field in exchange for giving up a cudgel that has proven almost entirely ineffective. In other words, it's an agreement you'd expect Levin to endorse, even if, as is his wont, he does so only equivocally. It's true that China has an imperfect record of compliance with trade agreements. Indeed, PNTR opponents like Barney Frank argue--reasonably enough--that it's foolish to discard the annual review simply because it hasn't been used effectively in the past. "If you have an important value, and you have a weapon that isn't doing much," he says, "doing less doesn't appear to be the best prescription." But sometimes a weapon can be so ineffective, and so unlikely to become more effective in the future, that the time simply comes to try another approach. China undoubtedly is in the world economy. The question is whether she will choose to pursue, albeit in a much cruder form, the export-led growth model pursued earlier by Japan--something which, given China's enormous size, could have disastrously dislocating effects throughout the international economy. Those who support China's entry into the WTO believe the United States will have more sway over that outcome with China in rather than out.
Yet you needn't agree with Levin's stance to sympathize with his predicament. This is a man who cares deeply about American workers and knows as much as anyone in Congress about trade policy. Yet he is being skinned alive by partisans on both sides of the debate. The real ire, it's true, comes from the PNTR opponents who see Levin's proposal as a mere "fig leaf" and Levin himself as a threat precisely because his credentials on these issues are so unimpeachable. But many PNTR supporters are actu-ally rather indifferent to the substance, as opposed to the utility, of Levin's initiative. Many of them too see it as, well, a fig leaf. When I asked an aide to one prominent pro-PNTR Demo-crat what he thought of the Levin proposal, the aide replied, "If Levin can bring us 10 [more] votes, it could make a very significant difference. So yeah, it's really important." Hardly a ringing endorsement.
The immediate damage from the China-WTO bat-tle may be limited by the Democrats' determination to maintain sufficient party unity long enough to recapture the House in November. But the longer-term prognosis for the intraparty politics of trade does not look so good. Pure opponents of globalization too often view the process as a door we can choose whether or not to pass through, rather than as an inevitable passage we can opt to navigate in a variety of different ways. There is a forward-looking and progressive middle ground to be staked out on the all-important questions of globalization and trade, a sort of one-nation liberalism that would recognize the substantial aggregate gains of open trade while sustaining a political coalition capable of providing adequate compensatory social outlay. But the polarized nature of the current debate tends to obscure that ground rather than clarify it.
For the moment, Levin doesn't believe the debate has been overly divisive. But that's only because it hasn't yet--as of this writing--moved to center stage. "It has the potentiality to become quite destructive," he told me. "And everybody should be aware of that danger." Frank, for his part, is more optimistic. "Yes, people are going to be annoyed," he assured me when I interviewed him in his office in late April. "People now regard Sandy as a threat to their objectives. But I sincerely doubt there'll be anything long-lasting. If we take the House back, and Sandy is chairman of the Trade Subcommittee of Ways and Means, he'll be, from the standpoint of labor, by far the best they've ever had. And they'll be thrilled with him."
I hope so. But frankly, I'm not so sure. ¤