Tuesday, May 24, 2005

TOM, TOM, TOM...

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Marie Cocco
Newsday
05-10-05

Nothing has had the sex appeal of the St. Andrews junket.

News of a lobbyist-paid junket to the fabled Scottish golf resort finally made Tom DeLay a household name synonymous with scandal. The story that DeLay, his wife and a retinue of aides were treated to a 10-day, $120,000 trip to London and the fabled St. Andrews course in Scotland - with many expenses charged to lobbyists' credit cards - turned an insiders' furor over congressional ethics into a media frenzy. There's nothing so devastating to smarmy politicians as a story that appeals to the great American instinct for resentment. If we can't get someone to pay our way to posh hotels and picturesque links, then why should he?

Yes, the St. Andrews caper is what finally inspired the public to follow DeLay's tribulations. It forced the House Republican leadership to switch the rules for ethics investigations back to what they'd been before DeLay ordered outlandish changes to protect himself.

But the question arises: Is the pond hop to historic links the worst thing the Texas Republican has ever done? Hardly. There are many qualified candidates, but one stands out for its squalor. That's DeLay's personal campaign to ensure that garment industry sweatshop workers and sex slaves in the Northern Mariana Islands - a U.S. territory - were exploited in a system that resembled indentured servitude.

The story dates to the 1990s, when the Clinton administration tried to crack down on the importation of cheap Chinese labor to the islands and to ameliorate conditions under which the guest workers - mostly women - toiled. Brokers - traffickers, really, in human beings - brought thousands to work in sweatshops for as many as 70 hours per week. They lived in crowded barracks; some were locked behind guarded fences. And because the territory is a U.S. possession, garments bore this seal of approval: "Made in the U.S.A."

Some who failed to get work were forced into the sex trade, though they may not even have been paid for prostitution since they still owed the brokers.

By 1992 officials of the first Bush administration expressed alarm, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who then chaired a House subcommittee on labor, held hearings. The Clinton White House tried to apply U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws to the islands. The effort had bipartisan support in Congress. Then DeLay, who by the late 1990s was House majority whip, stepped in to halt it. The Northern Marianas, DeLay said, was no haven for cruelty but a "perfect Petri dish of capitalism."

This dirty little drama has been known for years. It was prominently portrayed in "The Hammer," the 2004 political biography of DeLay by Lou Dubose and Jan Reid. The narrative perfectly fits the stories that now belatedly inspire public ire: The lobbyist trying to block reform was Jack Abramoff, the DeLay friend who is central to the ethics imbroglio. The price of DeLay's support was paid in the usual currency - junkets with aides and wives who managed to squeeze in golf, snorkeling and lavish dining along with their fact-finding.

The labor situation has improved since 2001, when a new governor was elected. A class-action lawsuit against garment makers - the sort of "frivolous" litigation DeLay abhors - brought monitors to the factories and an agreement by some to abandon use of the "Made in the U.S.A." label. Changes in the textile trade have made it cheaper for the Chinese industry to keep its work at home. Thousands of guest workers now are displaced; many are being deported. There is no happy ending to this story.

Yet, somehow it was insufficiently important to provoke an uproar when it came to light. We had our eyes wide shut. Because the island is distant or the workers Asian? Because DeLay was little known? Because the titillation of the Clinton sex scandal was more compelling than labor and sexual bondage indirectly condoned by our Congress?

At last the story is being retold. New twists are likely. Hundreds of documents have been released in Saipan relating to Abramoff's lobbying contracts; some detail his ties to the current White House. Our eyes are open now. But our willful blindness then enabled DeLay's rise at a cost to our own values, and not just to his ethics.

3 Comments:

Blogger Howard Davis said...

Sadly it seems the Delay scandal stories have been bumped from the headlines. I don't see them anymore. I wonder if he may have dodged a bullet...again.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

I dunno Howard, that might not be such a bad deal. The longer the guy hangs around the more of a liability I think he will get to be for the Republicans. 2006 Senate, here come the Democrats! It owuld be nice to pick up some seats in the House, too.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Howard Davis said...

I would like nothing more than that, but I still want Delay out of there and completely disgraced.

9:38 AM  

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