Magazine article The American Prospect

Sandy's Moment SEEKING THE PROGRESSIVE MIDDLE GROUND ON TRADE AND GLOBALIZATION

Magazine article The American Prospect

Sandy's Moment SEEKING THE PROGRESSIVE MIDDLE GROUND ON TRADE AND GLOBALIZATION

Article excerpt

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. …

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