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Hightower Radio - Railling on NAFTA

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower about a recent court ruling that may bring the North American Free Trade Agreement to a grinding halt. A judge in the Federal district court ruled that the government must prepare an environmental impact statement for NAFTA. Radio commentator Hightower,who's dealt with many cross-border issues in Texas, thinks the judge's decision is right on the money.


CURWOOD: The North American Free Trade Agreement has been under fire from environmentalists since it was negotiated by the Bush Administration. As President Clinton prepared to present the treaty to Congress for ratification, seven environmental organizations said they would go along, if side agreements were worked out to protect the environment in the US, Canada and Mexico. But a number of other groups, including the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Friends of the Earth, took a different tack. They sued the government on the grounds an environmental impact statement hadn't been prepared. Federal District Judge Charles Richey as recently agreed and declared that without an environmental impact statement, the current free trade treaty is illegal. The government is appealing. Jim Hightower dealt with cross- border issues when he was Texas Agriculture Commissioner, never did like NAFTA, and joins us now with his views from member station KUT in Austin. Jim, President Clinton is pledging to send the treaty to Congress and have it all sewn up by January despite Judge Richey's surprise ruling. What do you think?

HIGHTOWER: I don't think that's going to happen. There's too much opposition out here in the countryside. Congress, which as we know normally responds eagerly to big business interests, is coming back against and again to their districts and finding more and more people are saying, not only no, but hell no to this thing. And I think Congress is heeding that message. They don't want to pass this thing, they don't even want to have to vote on it. And now with something as significant as this, as this judge's decision, putting a big stink on the President's treaty, it backs them away even further. So I don't think that there's a prayer of him getting this thing together, and I doubt that even Mickey Kantor or others within the Administration who are fighting for this even have January on their timetable.

CURWOOD: Jim, what do you think about Judge Richey's decision>

HIGHTOWER: Well, I think it's right on, it's, hits the nail squarely on the head as far as I can tell, which is simply saying the President can't violate the law in this country in order to negotiate a treaty with two other nations. It also makes a very simple point, which is, let's just do an environment impact statement before we make a mess that we're going to be sorry for later.

CURWOOD: Wait a second - why can't the President do foreign policy? Why should a judge be telling him what to do?

HIGHTOWER: Well, we have all sorts of restrictions on the President. The Congress tells him what to do, the judges tell him what to do, the people tell him what to do, sometimes journalists even try to tell him what to do. This is not anything new, this doesn't say anything except you can't violate US law in order to negotiate a treaty. I'm, frankly, as a Democrat, embarassed that our President would take a position that says I'm not even going to do an environmental impact statement. Okay, let him go fight the legalistic aspects of this in the court, in order, if he must, to protect the prerogatives of the Presidency, but meanwhile I think he should step forward and say, this is good sound public policy, we should have an environmental impact statement done and we'll do it.

CURWOOD: Seven major environmental groups have proposed ways to take care of the environment through the North American Free Trade Agreement, so why not just go ahead with that?

HIGHTOWER: Well, the problem with side agreements is that they are side agreements. If you went out to buy a house and the seller said, OK, here's the contract, and you sign this and this gives, this protects all of my interests, but I don't want to put your interests in the contract, we'll just sign a little side note over here, and you can carry that off with you - I don't think you'd do it. That's what's being proposed here. Side agreements attached to a massive long-reaching, long-run treaty such as this North American Free Trade Agreement are kinda like putting earrings on a hog: it just doesn't hide the ugliness that is down beneath there.

CURWOOD: Jim Hightower, is there a North American Free Trade Agreement that you could sign off on?

HIGHTOWER: Absolutely, and it's not this document at all. It's a falsehood that those of us who oppose NAFTA somehow or other are against trade or somehow or other are against Mexico. As Commissioner of Agriculture here in Texas, for example, I established the Mexico-Texas Trade Commission, Exchange Commission, in which we did millions of dollars in trade, directly negotiated between our farmers, our small businesspeople, retailers, our research folks in universities. But the difference between what we did and this particular treaty is that it wasn't just multinational corporations sitting down with the elites of Mexico hammering out an agreement, we all came to the table. And that's what it's going to take. Bear in mind that when Europe attempted to, is attempting to forge its community, European Community over there, it has taken decades for them to put that together and much debate over fine points and bringing that out to the countryside so people could understand that and wrestle with it. And even then they're having a hard time.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much.

HIGHTOWER: Thank you, glad to be with you.

CURWOOD: Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower has his own syndicated radio program, "Hightower Radio."



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