Norm's Sticky Fingers

Pork, sugar, and other political commodities

With theories on free trade and protectionism spanning the ideological spectrum (and creating some of the strangest political bedfellows in history), it's a pretty sure bet no member of Congress relishes an upcoming vote on a trade pact. Especially not when said lawmaker has taken a bunch of money from folks who stand to be put out of business by the deal and vowed to go to the mat for them, but then realizes that doing so will anger his most powerful political patron.

We speak, of course, of Sen. Norm Coleman's sudden change of heart regarding the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Coleman had sworn to Minnesota's sugar beet farmers, who stand to be wiped out by cheap, imported Latin and Caribbean cane sugar, that he would defy the White House and vote against the bill. But then last week, at the 11th hour, Coleman announced he would vote for CAFTA. He insisted that he'd brokered a compromise that would save the state's sugar industry: for the next year and a half, the U.S. government would buy some of the dirt-cheap sugar expected to flood the market; taxpayers would foot the bill; beet farmers would get... come to think of it, what would they get?

Coleman billed it as a win for Minnesota farmers, but according to a story in last week's City Pages, the truth is they'll just get put out to pasture a little later.

Coleman's compromise would simply slow the rate at which the amount of foreign sugar enters the U.S. over the next 18 months, until the 2002 farm bill expires in 2007. Eventually, import ceilings will go up and domestic producers will likely be unable to compete with the low prices and decreased demand. The U.S. sugar industry--including more than 32,000 jobs in the Red River Valley--would inevitably totter.

(You can find another good primer on the politics of the deal here. No, that's not a link to a backgrounder in the PiPress or the Strib, it's a link to an Associated Press article about a debate on the issue between Coleman and Minnesota's Rep. Collin Peterson published in, of all places, the PiPress' sister Knight-Ridder paper in Biloxi, Mississippi.)

With the exception of our piece, Coleman's claim to have saved Minnesota's sugar farmers got precious little critical scrutiny from local journalists. The pork flowing from the White House to congressional districts where support for CAFTA was thought to be wobbly did receive a dynamite little write-up in the magazine Business Week.

What's the connection between a $2.5 billion plan to construct a series of dams and locks along the Mississippi River and a trade agreement between the U.S. and six Central American countries? Answer: It's the price the Bush Administration paid for the vote of Senator Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Coleman makes an amusing appearance in the same story, whining that his homies aren't showing him enough love: "Coleman, disappointed the deal won no praise from Minnesota sugar beet growers, laments, 'We came away from the table thinking that we got just what we asked for.'" Exactly, Norm.

Last week, shortly after the publication of our story, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted to approve CAFTA. Ever the rising Republican star, Coleman has been quick to shift his energies to Bush's latest initiative--check out his defense of Bush's recess appointment of John Bolton's as ambassador to the United Nations here.

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