Campaigning across Pennsylvania and other sections of the Rust Belt in recent months, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has stressed her determination to put a hold on trade agreements, which she says are costing American jobs.
And last weekend, she demoted her chief campaign strategist after news reports that he did private lobbying work on behalf of a free trade pact with Colombia that Clinton opposes.
Yet Clinton’s voting record in the Senate only hints at the skepticism about international trade deals that she recently has made a cornerstone of her presidential campaign.
Since 2001, Clinton has backed pacts with Jordan, Chile, Singapore, Australia, Morocco and Oman that were opposed by numerous labor, farming and environmental groups concerned that the deals contained insufficient safeguards for American workers and consumers.
As recently as November, Clinton supported a free trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration with Peru.
Clinton’s more recent critiques have cheered many trade critics, who long have complained that the pacts encourage companies to move jobs overseas.
But Clinton’s campaign posture also has raised a few eyebrows. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, a leading opponent of the structure of current trade agreements, said the New York senator apparently had shifted after getting “a lot of feedback from people across the country.”
Clinton’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, also has backed bilateral trade agreements since he came to the Senate in 2005, and like Clinton has stepped up his criticism of trade deals more recently. Unlike her, he has not urged a trade deal moratorium.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona has backed every major piece of trade legislation since 2001.
Clinton campaign officials this week defended her record, noting that Clinton’s support for individual agreements and for a sweeping moratorium were both based on careful analysis.
“The approach she has taken is completely consistent,” said Brian Deese, the campaign’s economic policy director. “She is not opposed to trade deals per se. . . . Her posture is and has been that we need to look really closely.”
In the past, Clinton has said that she uses a balancing test in assessing trade legislation. “I look at each agreement in its totality and measure the impact of each agreement on the New Yorkers that I am privileged to represent,” she said in July 2004, as she voted in favor of the Australia Free Trade Agreement.
Since 2001, Clinton has consistently said the promise of more jobs and greater economic growth has persuaded her to support trade agreements. While campaigning for the Senate a year earlier, Clinton said that she also supported normalized trade relations with China.
But as a presidential candidate, she has adopted a very different tone.
“We’re going to take a look at every single trade agreement we’ve got and we’re going to make those trade agreements pro-America and pro-American worker,” Clinton recently said at a rally in Muncie, Ind., a onetime industrial hub where thousands of jobs have been lost in recent decades.
Clinton has criticized pending deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, which labor groups have singled out for tolerating violence against labor organizers.
She has pledged to call a “time-out” on any more trade pacts until the effect of current agreements can be assessed.
And she has promised to renegotiate specific parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed during the administration of President Clinton, her husband. The senator has said that she opposed NAFTA while she was first lady.
Since her election to the Senate in 2000, Clinton at times has demonstrated a similar concern about the negative effects of liberalizing trade.
She opposed granting President Bush “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade deals. And she was among 45 senators, including Obama, who voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, in 2005.
“I cannot support an agreement that fails to include adequate labor standards,” Clinton said in a speech on the Senate floor at the time.
Twice in the last two years, Clinton submitted legislation requiring studies on the impact of trade agreements on the U.S. economy and labor market. (Both bills were largely ignored; they attracted no co-sponsors and never came up for debate.)
Daniel T. Griswold, who directs the pro-trade Cato Center for Trade Policy Studies, said Clinton’s CAFTA vote as well as her support for farm subsidies and other legislation reflect some skepticism about trade.
But time and again over the last seven years, Clinton backed trade deals that other lawmakers rejected.
When the Bush administration in 2003 pushed for congressional approval of bilateral agreements with Singapore and Chile, more than 30 senators, including several Republicans, voted against each.
Environmental organizations complained about provisions in the deals that gave multinational companies rights to challenge environmental regulations in the participating countries.
And labor unions assailed the lack of any requirement that Singapore and Chile adhere to international standards to protect workers.
At the time, Clinton cited concerns about several of these terms. “The labor provisions in the Chile and Singapore agreements should not be used as a model for future trade agreements,” she said in a statement she entered into the congressional record.
But she nonetheless voted for the two agreements, citing their potential benefits for New York.
A year later, as the Senate debated deals with Australia and Morocco, Clinton again voiced concerns about the scope of the deals. Once again, however, she voted for the pacts, which included labor provisions matching those in the Chile and Singapore agreements.
In 2006, the Bush administration inserted similar provisions in a free trade agreement with Oman, as well as the oft-used section giving companies the right to challenge the regulatory authority of the participating countries.The Oman deal and the subsequent pact with Peru prompted renewed opposition from leading trade skeptics on Capitol Hill.
“Workers get short shrift,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said before the Peru vote in December. “Slave wages are OK, unsafe working conditions are OK, unsafe products and food are OK, contaminated food is OK.”
Clinton missed the vote. But she told The Times she supported the Peru deal, calling its labor and environmental provisions “very strong.”
Three months later, in March, she won a key primary victory in Brown’s state with attacks on the devastating effects of trade agreements.