By Vicki Needham - 06/07/11 10:13 AM EDT
Lori Wallach doesn’t sugarcoat her disappointment with President Obama.
“We face a situation with the Obama administration’s trade policy that is equal parts damaging, heartbreaking, infuriating and disgusting,” she told The Hill in an interview.
But that optimism is dead and gone.
“The president is on the wrong side,” she said.
Wallach is the longtime director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and among the most widely cited liberal experts on trade policy. The Wall Street Journal once dubbed her “Ralph Nader with a sense of humor,” and she’s living up to her firebrand reputation as she tries to put the brakes on the Obama administration’s accelerated trade push.
“[Obama] made commitments in 2008 that was critical to his winning,” Wallach said. “Now he’s flip-flopped and blurred those distinctions.
“I expected delivery of promises made,” she said.
Wallach, who was a year ahead of Obama at Harvard Law School, says the administration took up the mantle of George W. Bush by making only negligible changes to the trade deals that were hammered out while he was in office.
“He’s reviving Bush-era agreements and making those his own. It’s inexplicable,” Wallach said.
She is particularly incensed by the Korea accord, which she said could have been a “first step toward a new model” if major changes had been made. That it wasn’t handled that way, she says, “is particularly tragic, because an agreement between two developed countries was probably the easiest one to try to work out some longstanding problems.”
Wallach dismisses the actions taken by the administration to change the trade pacts as mere window-dressing — the “most modest, kabuki-dance go-through-the-motions” stuff imaginable.
Her fury is shared by the labor movement, which broadly opposes the trade deals and sees betrayal in the White House’s decision to champion them.
Wallach said unions have good reason to be miffed. She said the Obama administration could have easily removed a ban on the International Labor Organization (ILO) from the trade conventions — which she said was added by the Bush White House as a “f--k you” to labor — but chose not to.
The Colombia pact is a sore point for labor because of the country’s poor record on protecting union organizers. The issue is deeply personal, as many know union officials who were killed there.
Wallach has said the administration’s “action plan” to address the concerns about labor rights in Colombia was a “remarkably cynical maneuver” to push along an agreement forged during the Bush administration.
She accused the White House of selling out its most devout supporters for political gain and predicted the repercussions will be evident in the 2012 campaign.
“You’re guaranteeing that your own base is going to feel betrayed, so they’re not going to vote, and you’re not going to get kudos from the other side.”
Wallach says Obama committed to changing trade policy when he was running for president in 2008. His platform included ensuring that all trade agreements include binding obligations that protect collective bargaining rights and other labor standards recognized by the ILO, she said.
“He’s the guy who we thought would fix and replace NAFTA, who’s now working with Republicans,” she said.
She says Obama’s problem is that he’s surrounded by an economic team of “unrepentant NAFTA lovers” who have steered the administration back toward the substance of the Bush-era trade deals and away from making any notable changes.
Wallach concedes she probably wouldn’t have a job if the White House and Congress would agree on several changes to current trade agreements and says she finds it humorous when she’s labeled an isolationist.
“We’re not against trade,” she said. “Again, if the issues were really about trade, we wouldn’t be involved,” she said.
Wallach’s no-nonsense style has won her admirers on Capitol Hill, where she is known as a skilled vote counter. In the last Congress, she helped craft a bill that won the backing of 120 lawmakers, led by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), to provide guidance to negotiators on trade deals.
“She is a dedicated advocate for fair trade and always puts the interests of America’s workers first,” Michaud said.
Her entry into the trade arena happened mostly by accident.
After graduating from Harvard, she landed with Public Citizen’s litigation group, combing through cases in the basement of the Supreme Court in an effort to help under-resourced lawyers.
A year later she joined the group’s Congress Watch and began following issues like food safety, clean water, clean air, pesticides and, eventually, trade.
The a-ha moment came when she realized that developing trade agreements were shifting from deliberations on tariffs and quotas to domestic issues.
While tracking food-safety issues on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, Wallach was struck by what she heard from corporate representatives. They said they weren’t fond of a bill that mandated new pesticide standards and improved meat and fish labeling, but were nonplussed because the changes would be blocked by U.S. trade deals.
“I started to get very concerned about it,” Wallach said, and told her boss there was “something very fishy going on.”
She took a week off work, found a draft text of the WTO framework and confirmed her suspicions that the rules in the agreement consisted of binding international law enforceable with monetary sanctions.
Taking a closer look, Wallach said she found that trade actually “dug into all of our business” and imposed domestic policy constraints such as restrictions on what Congress could change as far as pesticide laws and a broad range of other issues, including intellectual property.
“It was kind of elegantly genius,” she said. “Trade isn’t about fighting over tariffs anymore. It’s a backdoor way to implement rules, a framework for deregulation.”
That was a turning point.
Taking to educating and organizing — two of her proven strengths — Wallach pieced together a coalition of unusual allies, leading to the creation of the Citizens Trade Campaign in 1992.
“We created a debate where there wasn’t one before,” she said of the group, which consists of civil rights, labor unions, family farms, think tanks and environmentalists, among others.
In the next 20 years on the trade beat, Wallach became a walking casebook of trade law as she fought through round after round of negotiations on global accords. The years of work are evident in her Capitol Hill office, where dog-eared copies of trade agreements line the shelves.
Win or lose, Wallach says she doesn’t subscribe to inertia, aiming to out-research, outsmart, outwork and out-organize her opponents — the majority of which are corporations.
“There’s a powerful set of special interests on the other side,” she said.
“The public is with us and our case is strong.”