Vermont voters wouldn't know it from the state's media, but the Independent socialist they first sent to Washington seven years ago has become a highly effective player on the biggest issue currently facing Congress: U.S. trade policy.
In recent months, Bernie Sanders has enjoyed success with three major trade proposals he initiated. And the self-styled outsider in the House did it in each instance by persuading a significant number of Republicans and conservative Democrats to support his cause.
By a solidly bipartisan 356-64 margin, the House in September approved a Sanders amendment requiring the U.S. Trade Representative to be more attentive to international challenges to American laws. The aim is to defend the ability of states and localities to use their legislative power to spur changes in other countries' governance. The most notable example of this strategy was the 1980s disinvestment movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
Now some states are similarly attempting to promote democracy in military-ruled Burma. But opponents of these efforts are urging the World Trade Organization to rule that such divestment laws violate the WTO's free-trade rules. The Northeast Dairy Compact, intended to boost the milk prices paid to farmers, may also be targeted for elimination via the WTO, Sanders warns.
The second House-backed measure sponsored by Sanders instructs the U.S. Export-Import Bank to give preference in its lending programs to those American companies with a "demonstrated record" of creating jobs in the United States. Businesses that invest at home as well as overseas deserve to move to the front of the queue for these low-interest federal loans, Sanders argues.
He contrasts their behavior with that of Nike, which has been widely criticized for operating unsafe factories in low-wage Asian countries while refusing to make shoes in America. Sanders has so far persuaded 50 of his House colleagues to sign a letter to Nike head Phillip Knight urging him to build plants in the U.S.
Due to the third — and most significant — of Sanders' recent trade bills, it is now illegal to import products made by indentured child workers. The new law, signed by President Clinton in late October, may affect $100 million worth of goods, mostly rugs and athletic equipment manufactured in southern Asia by children as young as four years of age.
Unlike the Vermont press, a few national media outlets have highlighted Sanders' victories in the trade realm. The New York Times gave his-child-labor law page-one coverage last month. And the Journal of Commerce, a leading business publication, paid him a back-handed compliment in a recent editorial.
"Bernie Sanders may reflect the left wing of the House on trade and labor issues," the Journal observed, "but lately he's been on a roll."
In a later commentary, the New York-based daily noted that Sanders has opposed every one of the major trade accords pushed by Clinton, including the "fast-track" measure that the president failed to ram through the House this past weekend. Vermont's sole congressman doesn't appreciate how much his own state benefits from expanded trade opportunities, the Journal suggested, noting that foreign sales of Vermont products have soared more than 800 percent in the last decade.
Some local business leaders are also critical of Sanders' efforts to prevent Clinton from minimizing Congress role in the trade-negotiating process. Many of the state's most successful companies are heavily dependent on export opportunities, says Kerrick Johnson, vice-president of Associated Industries of Vermont. And "it's pretty clear that Bernie has been successful in thwarting efforts to reduce export barriers."
But in a testament to Sanders' political savvy, the head of Vermont's World Trade Office expresses nothing but satisfaction with the congressman's performance. "We've been very pleasantly surprised by how much his office has done to support our efforts," comments Roger Kilbourn. At Sanders' initiative, his staff is arranging for Vermont's top export promoter to meet with the trade representatives of various embassies in Washington.
"He's very supportive of Vermont's trade efforts," Kilboum says of the lawmaker who has fiercely opposed many of the congressional proposals favored by Kilbourn's office.
How has Sanders come to be so deeply involved in what's essentially a foreign-policy issue that was of little concern to him during his eight years as Burlington's mayor?
Sanders casts his leading role in the trade debate probably the most important issue facing the nation today — in terms of his longstanding concern with class disparities in America. And he predicates his position on an insistence that the U.S. economy is in serious trouble, notwithstanding the relentlessly positive statistics of the past couple or years.
Unemployment may be at a 24-year low and inflation appears virtually nonexistent, but for many Americans these are hard times, Sanders argues. He points to the recently reported 7 percent drop in Vermonters' family incomes and to the fact that blue-collar wages are barely inching upward nationally. "Middle-class and working families are suffering rather badly as the rich get richer," Sanders maintains.
U.S. trade policy constitutes one of the main reasons for this top-heavy prosperity, he adds.
Despite Clinton's constant efforts to pry open foreign markets for American-made products, the U.S. now racks up a record-setting $125 billion trade deficit — meaning that imports exceed exports by that amount. Some economists estimate this trade gap is costing the U.S. three million jobs, Sanders points out.
"My aim is to reform our trade policy so that companies invest more in the United States and so that American workers aren't forced to compete with desperate people in the Third World," he says.
"I'm not against trade," Sanders declares. He agrees with Clinton that the U.S. should negotiate a free-trade agreement with Chile, but Sanders wants any such accord to contain environmental and labor protections stronger than any the president is likely to present to Congress on a fast-track, take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Sections of the Republican Party share Sanders' suspicion of international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, that can affect American laws. "Some right-wingers, he says, "raise the issue of national sovereignty in regard to WTO. And they have a point."
Drawing a distinction between "corporatist" Republicans and other conservatives "who truly believe they're representing working people," Sanders trumpets his success in building coalitions with the latter group. His status as the only Independent in the House abets his search for common ground across party lines, Sanders contends. "As someone who doesn't spend all his time attacking Republicans or defending Bill Clinton, I'm in a better position to bring Republicans and Democrats together."
The leftish tinge of the House's current Democratic contingent has further enabled Sanders to forge alliances with powerful figures. David Bonior, the most progressive member of the Democrats' House leadership team, recently invited Sanders to accompany him and another Democrat on a tour of Mexico's Juarez border section. The trio's one-day visit, meant to highlight weaknesses in the North American Free Trade Agreement, was given substantial airtime on CBS' nightly national news show.
"Bernie's guns are still blazing; he's not backed down at all on his politics," says Bill Grover, chair of the St. Michael's College political science department. "But at the same time he's been able to put together coalitions." The socialist label no longer frightens away many would-be allies, notes Grover, who is researching the effectiveness of the House Progressive Caucus which Sanders founded and chairs.
The congressman himself seems increasingly comfortable in the role of Capitol Hill habitue. Experience makes a difference, Sanders acknowledges. In each of his four terms, "we've been learning how to get things [done] in this enormously complicated institution."
Sanders further indicates he has no intention of running for a different office any time soon. And it's possible he won't face much of a challenge to his reelection in 1998. Republicans may find it harder than ever to argue plausibly that Vermont's only House member is an irrelevancy in Washington.