A symbol of change

News Analysis

Those who say there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats should take a look at a piece of legislation that passed the House, but fell victim to another GOP filibuster. It involves a little-known federal agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

OPIC does not actually dole out money, except in extreme circumstances — a foreign nation’s takeover of U.S. corporate interests, known as “nationalization.”

OPIC provides federal loans to such U.S. firms to set up shop abroad and provides loan guarantees so the firms can get repaid by the U.S. Treasury — a.k.a. taxpayer dollars — for their investments if a nationalization occurs.

Those loans and loan guarantees have come with no strings attached. And OPIC has been criticized as a great federal subsidy for corporations which want to engage in the “race to the bottom” by investing in developing nations with no workers’ rights, low or no pay and lots of workplace hazards.

Last July, the Democratic-run House passed HR 2798, renewing OPIC for three more years, until Sept. 30, 2011. The Democratic-run Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it in March. It had strings, lots of strings. We’re quoting from a fact sheet from the Senate GOP Policy Committee, not exactly a pro-worker group:

“The bill provides OPIC may insure, reinsure, guarantee or finance a project only

in a country eligible (under worldwide trade rules) for developing countries or where the Washington government has taken or is taking steps to afford workers internationally recognized workers’ rights.”

The House-passed OPIC bill “gives preference to projects in countries where laws protect workers’ rights, where governments are receptive to private enterprise and where governments agreed to implement extractive industries transparency initiative principles” i.e. to tell their own citizens who’s exploiting their raw materials and why.

That’s quite a change from the untrammeled right OPIC had to make loan guarantees to firms to build plants in countries where a nationalization could occur — and then the U.S. taxpayer would pick up the company’s tab.

The OPIC bill was all set to go. But then the Senate’s “Dr. No,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), held it up. He said the OPIC bill might cause new spending. His hold delayed it for months..

The Democrats tried to get around Coburn by packaging the OPIC bill with many others Coburn “held” and bringing them all up for a vote, in one massive bill, on July 28. Guess what happened. Right, a GOP filibuster. The OPIC bill, and all the rest, died.

That’s a common story in this Congress. But what we mean to illustrate here is the “dime’s worth of difference” between the two sides. The Democrats’ OPIC bill attached workers’ rights to the agency’s loan guarantees. The existing Republican-written OPIC law does not. And the Republicans blocked an attempt to change it.

So if anyone tells you there’s no difference in who’s in the White House or who runs Congress, just show them the OPIC bill.



Mark Gruenberg, PAI