Published on Tuesday, May 23, 2006 by The Nation
William Jefferson, D-Wall Street
by John Nichols
Nancy Pelosi has shown little interest in holding George Bush to account, as evidenced by the House Minority Leader's determination to distance herself from discussions of censuring – let alone impeaching – the president for the high crimes and misdemeanors that have characterized his tenure.
So it not all that surprising that Pelosi, despite her promise to "clean up" Congressional corruption, has been slow to demand genuine accountability from a member of the House Democratic Caucus she leads. The minority leader has backed an ethics committee inquiry into charges against Congressman William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, the "star" of a Federal Bureau of Investigation tape in which what sounds like a bribe of $100,000 is accepted. But she so far has refrained from suggesting the obvious: that it is time for the severely scandal-plagued Jefferson to resign.
Let's be clear, if Tom DeLay needed to go, so does Jefferson.
What makes Pelosi's refusal to cut Jefferson loose so disappointing is the fact that Democrats owes the congressan from New Orleans no loyalty. Indeed, if ever there was a member of Congress who merited abandonment by his party, official censure and a hasty exit from the legislative branch, it is William Jefferson.
Putting aside the bribery probe, Jefferson has a horrific record of breaking with his Democratic colleagues to sell out his constituents, his country and the poorest people in the world. He may be a Democrat, but on the issues that really matter Jefferson has served the Bush administration and Wall Street more diligently than a number of Republicans.
Jefferson's has been one of the steadiest Democratic votes for the president's foreign policy agenda. The Louisianan voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, consistently supports emergency "supplemental" spending to maintain the occupation of that country, and favors deployment of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted for the USA Patriot Act when it was rushed through Congress in 2001, and was a big backer of Vice President Cheney's national energy policy. And, though his record on social issues is mixed, Jefferson has on a number of occasions cast his lot with the White House and its social-conservative allies to help enact restrictions on abortion, school prayer initiatives and a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
But Jefferson's deepest loyalty is not to the Bush administration. Rather, it is to big business. In a Congress where there are plenty of Democrats who are friendly to the legislative agenda of corporate America, Jefferson is devoted to it. This Democrat puts more than a few responsible Republicans to shame when it comes to doing the bidding of Wall Street.
After a key export tax break for U.S. manufacturers was identified as an illegal trade subsidy by the World Trade Organization, Jefferson and most -- though not all -- House Republicans voted to provide $140 billion in new corporate tax cuts for impacted businesses. He has voted again and again for bankruptcy law "reforms" that favor the interests of banks and credit card companies over those of working families. And he is the king of the dwindling circle of free-trade Democrats.
Jefferson was not just one of "The CAFTA 15" – the group of Democrats who cast critical votes to save the Central American Free Trade Agreement after the administration was abandoned by 27 Republicans when the agreement came up for House approval in July, 2005 -- he was the chief Democratic cheerleader for that bad deal. When the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council sponsored a pro-CAFTA teleconference before the vote, there was Jefferson proclaiming: "I'm supporting CAFTA because I believe it's in the best interests of our country."
The Louisiana Democrat, who is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee's powerful subcommittee on Trade, did similar service during debates over trade deals with Chile, Singapore and Australia. And he was an essential Democratic supporter of normalizing trade relations with China in 2000, arguably the most devastating trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of six years earlier, which Jefferson also backed.
But Jefferson's most unsettling advocacy on behalf of corporate-friendly trade agreements that have undermined job security and wages, environmental protection and human rights in the U.S. and abroad came in 1998, when the congressman was an outspoken advocate for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed "NAFTA for Africa" by the business press. Condemned by South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unions that saw it as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent's workers and resources, AGOA was described by a leading foe, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Illinois, as the "Africa Recolonization Act."
During the House debate on the issue, Jackson pointed out that, "The AGOA extends short-lived trade "benefits" for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization's table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans."
The Illinois Democrat asked, "Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it -- a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights."
The coalition promoting African Growth and Opportunity Act was able to counter the criticisms from Mandela, Jackson and others by highlighting the enthusiastic support for the deal by a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That member, William Jefferson, gleefully declared that, "Africa is a reservoir of opportunities for American businesses."
(Among the bribes Jefferson is alleged to have accepted are more than $400,000 in payments to help telecommunications firms do business in Nigeria and other West African nations.)
The split in the black caucus back in 1998 helped secure passage of AGOA in a form that was much worse than might have been the case if Jefferson and others had echoed the honest concerns expressed by Jackson.
No wonder that, in his latest campaign finance filing, Jefferson reported that almost 79 percent of the political action committee contributions to his reelection campaign -- $340,912 -- came from business interests, while just 19 percent came from organized labor.
Even in his campaign coffers, William Jefferson has the profile of a Republican – and an unsavory Republican at that.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2006 The Nation