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Capitol Hill Faces People Party Revolt On Trade & Health Care

David Sirota

Just after the 2006 elections, I wrote a series of widely-circulated posts on how the real divide that will be (and has been) defining politics is not the one between Republicans and Democrats, but between the Money Party and the People Party. On many issues, the Money Party is synonymous with the GOP, but it also includes a faction of corporate-backed Democrats. That's why though the Democrats do have a majority in Congress, the Money Party also is in the majority as well. The question, as I said after the election, would be whether the People Party minority in Congress (who still make up a majority of Democrats in Congress and, of course, a majority of people in the country) had the guts to use its power against the Money Party to really force changes. This week, we have two specific reasons to be hopeful that yes, the People Party is asserting itself and yes, the Washington Establishment has a serious revolt on its hands.

The first story piece of encouraging news comes on the issue of trade. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) is right now being pressured by K Street to support President Bush's "free" trade agenda. As I reported from the International Economic Summit in Butte, Montana earlier this week, Corporate America is putting the full court press on both Rangel and his counterpart, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). Big Money wants these two to pass a spate of new trade deals that are anything but free - they include thousands of pages of strict protections for corporate profits (patents, copyrights and intellectual property protections) but no protections for humans (labor, human rights or environmental protections).

The progressive movement is working hard to pressure these two chairmen to hold the line for ordinary people. Yesterday in Washington, for instance, protests broke out against Bush's proposed trade pact with Colombia - a pact that would deliver economic rewards to a Colombian government that the Washington Post reports is colluding with paramilitary gangs to assassinate labor organizers. Meanwhile, in Montana, the Progressive States Network helped pass a bipartisan resolution through the State Senate demanding Baucus reject President Bush's request for "fast track" trade negotiating authority - the authority that lets him strip labor, human rights and environmental provision out of trade deals with no input from Congress.

That brings us to yesterday's story in National Journal, which reports that "Rangel is struggling to salvage negotiations with the White House and Republicans that would lead to a bipartisan deal on trade agreements, after being unable so far to find traction among his fellow Democrats on an approach that would strengthen labor provisions." Rangel, we learn, is facing a revolt of the People Party Democrats within his midst. Specifically, "sources said Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, D-Mich., felt the proposed labor language went too far in attempting to assuage GOP fears." This followed a move last week where "70 House Democrats urged Rangel in a letter not to back down from positions on labor" Put another way, the People Party is telling its Money Party counterparts - in this case, Rangel - that these corrupt shenanigans are unacceptable. And here's the best part of all - the People Party is finally finding a clear voice on delineating exactly what the real divide is in Congress. Here's the quote of one congressional Democratic source:

"[Rangel is] out of step with the rest of the Caucus...[His negotiating] shows a hypersensitivity to business concerns at the expense of traditional progressive groups that make up the Democratic Party and base."(emphasis added)

That kind of outlook - one that values the progressive movement over the wallet of Big Money interests - is exactly what divides the Money Party and the People Party within the Democratic Establishment, and to see more and more congressional Democrats respect their campaign pledges to fight for fair trade and side with the progressive movement against the Money Party icons within their own caucus is major progress. These People Party champions aren't fooled by Big Money's rhetoric. They understand that our current trade policies are specifically designed to create a never-ending race to the bottom. Just look at the Financial Times report today that shows how Corporate America is using our current trade policies to try to pressure China to back off the most meager improvements to its awful labor laws. The threat - used regularly against American workers - is that if China moves forward, companies will just go exploit an even more impoverished country's oppressed workers. That more and more of our congressional representatives are taking a stand against this kind of thing is huge news.

Also huge news is this story in the Hill Newspaper today about U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reintroducing his legislation that would reinstate a law forcing the government to negotiate lower prices for drugs developed at taxpayer expense. As I detail in my book Hostile Takeover, this is the ultimate People Party legislation thrown in the face of the Money Party, in that it says what's good for Corporate America should be good for the American taxpayer. The drug companies always argue that because they supposedly spend lots of money on R&D (which, of course, they don't really - most of their cash goes to administration and advertising) they should be able to charge high prices to get a return on their investment. Yet, because President Clinton repealed the law Sanders is trying to reinstate, taxpayers are not afforded the same right to a return on our investment. The federal government today finances about a third of all basic medical R&D, and yet hands that R&D over to the drug companies without any ability to make sure taxpayers get a benefit from that investment in the form of affordable medicine prices.

The Hill notes that this is going to be a Money Party vs. People Party brawl - but that the People Party has the advantage because Sanders has been effectively packaging this bill in a populist message for years and thus embarrassing the GOP into more and more support:

"With the provision's history of acquiring significant cross-party support and the populist character of the legislation, the Sanders measure provides Democrats' their best chance of sending a prescription drug price-control measure to the White House, paving the way for what could be President Bush's third veto...Sanders initiated several attempts for the provision's return as a member of the House, including an effort in 2000 when he introduced renewal legislation as an amendment to the health appropriations bill. In spite of the Republican controlled Congress, the measure passed the House -- garnering 118 Republican votes, over half of the House GOP delegation --yet was stripped from the final bill during conference committee, according to the senator...The Sanders bill - unlike the Part D legislation - has a reasonable chance to attract 60 votes. In addition to the five Republican senators who broke rank with the party to vote for cloture on the Part D bill, two GOP senators, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) voted in favor of the Sanders measure in 2000 as members of the House."

This is the beginning, folks. These are the first bubbles in what is a boiling pot of populist frustration that has been brewing since the 2006 election. The public is hungry for real change - not just the change of parking spots and embossed name plates on Capitol Hill that the David Broders think is what politics should really be all about. And thankfully, the People Party in Congress is responding with serious pressure on its Money Party obstacles. If - and only if - the progressive movement has the discipline to focus on these kitchen table economic issues like trade and health care, we could very soon start to see some concrete accomplishments.

David Sirota is the author of the book Hostile Takeover. To subscribe to Sirota's regular newsletter, go to and sign up on the left hand side.

© 2007 David Sirota

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