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September 1, 2012

A Broken Budget, Trade and The Parties (including Tea)

Veteran politician Bill Brock talks about the dodgy climate on Capitol Hill.

 Former Sen. Bill Brock says the problem with the U.S. Trade Office right now is that trade policy is being set on the basis of politics, not national need.

FORMER SEN. BILL BROCK'S CAREER includes more than 30 years on Capitol Hill, first in the House, then the Senate, and finally as President Ronald Reagan's U.S. Trade Representative and Secretary of Labor. Along the way he also served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Today, he sits on several corporate and charitable boards, including On Assignment and ResCare, and is a trustee at the nonpartisan think tank, The Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Brock's varied political career at a time when bipartisanship was a meaningful concept in Washington, and his extensive experience with many of the key trade and labor questions so crucial to MSCI members, give him an intriguing and perceptive outlook on today's seemingly paralyzed political system.

But before he was a politician, Brock was involved in the family business and says that what happened before he stepped into politics marked him the most as a person. As a young man he helped his father and his grandfather, William Emerson Brock (also a former senator), with the family candy business. A young Brock sold candy door to door in small towns like West Memphis, Arkansas (Pop. 9,112 in 1950), and quickly learned how tough life could be for small business owners.

For instance, one time he was selling candy bars to an elderly shop owner who agreed to try a few of his candy bars for a special rate: 27 chocolate bars for the price of 24. But when she opened her cash drawer to give him the 85 cents she owed him, she didn't have

the money. He gave her the candy bars for free. Today when he recalls the story, he is struck by the courage and character small business owners must have to put their livelihoods on the line day after day to earn their own way. “These are the real Americans,” he says.

Although raised in the heavily Democratic region of Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Brock returned home from serving in the U.S. Navy in 1957, he became active in the Republican Party—particularly after he saw the abuses of one-party rule and voter

fraud. White election officials were going behind the curtain with black voters to ensure they voted for the Democratic candidate, he says. Brock was alarmed, and he and several of his friends made it their mission to get a Republican voted into office—legally. “In some of these rural counties, the corruption was really endemic,” Brock says. In this case, the ward was run entirely by a group associated with the Democratic Party. “One-party rule does lead to corruption, almost inevitably, because there's no competition. There's nobody to keep them accountable.”

It is a telling observation in this modern era when dramatic gerrymandering by both parties has turned so many voting districts into one-party fiefdoms.

People Aren't Willing to Get Along

It's been 18 years since you last ran for office; what is the biggest difference you see from the political landscape in 1994 to today?

The biggest difference is that people aren't willing to get along like they used to. When my wife and I first moved to D.C. we hadn't so much as unpacked our boxes and we got a call from a Democratic senator from Tennessee. He called me up and said, “Bill, how are you? My wife and I would like you to join us for dinner. We've got a few friends you ought to meet.” He introduced me to the movers and shakers in both parties.

When it came time to argue over new bills, we'd debate issues all day in Congress and then everyone would get together and play softball afterward and have a couple beers. Political families knew and liked each other. Nowadays it seems like everyone in Congress is competing to see who can yell the loudest.

The other big difference is that politicians spend so much time fundraising. And then, when they get elected to office, they feel like they owe something to the people who got them there. And, well, maybe they do. Large donors expect that their money will bend the ear of the politician they support.

The Value of Effective Local Action

So what is the average citizen to do? Without making a large donation to one campaign or the other, how does one gain the attention and loyalty of someone in office?

The best way I know how is through grassroots efforts. You support a local candidate for a local election. As his or her career progresses, you continue to support their candidacy. This way, you build a relationship with a candidate that isn't dependent on how much money you give. They care about your issues and concerns because they care about you and what's best for the people they represent.

How would you assess the Tea Party movement and its influence on the Republican National Committee?

Oh, I think it can be a very good thing. If the Tea Party had been around when I first started in politics, I think that's what my friends and I would have called ourselves. We were sick of the corruption in the local government and sick of the way things were being run. We wanted to start a grassroots movement that stood for free enterprise. In any party, there are certain people who like to yell and draw a lot of attention to themselves, and of course those people get covered more in the media. But as a whole I think the Tea Party movement has brought the United States back to its roots—local activism.

Do you see a cohesive set of policies being articulated by the Tea Party?

No, I don't. I think the Tea Party is saying there's too much spending, there's too much government intervention. They're saying government is out of control. We need to elect people who are not beholden to special interests. By and large it's a much more general statement.

 Brock says if the Tea Party had been around when he first got into politics, he and his friends would have identified with the group.

Budget Bungling

Is it possible to tame government spending and make the budget process more rational?

Of course. To do that, you have to elect people with integrity to tell their voters we cannot continue to live beyond our means. I was part of the team that wrote the Congressional Budget Act, which requires Congress to approve a budget each year. The Senate hasn't passed a budget in three years. How is it lawmakers can't live up to the law that they've agreed upon? I think it might make sense for Congress to begin working off of a two year budget, which would allow them to plan more in advance instead of always being a reactive entity. But I don't think it's likely to happen in the near term.

Sooner or later someone has to admit the current process is not working for the American people. There ought to be a requirement that every law and regulation be sunsetted. Any expenditure or program. We ought to have a process at least every three to five years, requiring programs to be reauthorized. Did it work? Were there results that you can justify it? If there weren't, eliminate it.

Why are lawmakers reluctant to enforce trade agreements and stop actions like foreign currency manipulation?

Too often lawmakers respond to constituent pressures and do not look at the total national economic response. We do have to enforce our trade laws. Otherwise, why negotiate them? We have to deal with abuses for the same reason. But we have to do it in the national interest. We cannot do it on behalf of every local and state circumstance.

One example would be cotton. We put a limit on cotton imports and Brazil went to the international bodies—the World Trade Organization—and protested. Well, they won! We still refuse to change, so we've paid the Brazilians money to let us continue violating the rules. That's one example—you have a limited area of economic interest, but it's affecting the whole country. Not only do we have a higher price for cotton in this country, but then we're spending money we don't have to pay the Brazilians to let us continue to do the wrong thing. It's perilously close to a bribe to tell [Brazil] to quit coming after us under the rules.

The problem I have with the U.S. Trade Office right now is that trade policy is being set on the basis of politics, not national need. And it's being set in the White House, not in the U.S. Trade Representative's office. There's a sense among those of us who have

held that job [trade representative] that the administration basically doesn't have a trade policy at all. It's all just ad hoc.

Trade Policy? Don't Forget Japan.

What should the administration's trade policy be?

We ought to have a free trade agreement with Egypt. We've got to get a better handle on Japan and Asia. The current representative has tried to force China to revalue their currency. I don't think he's been very effective.

Our largest trading partner in Asia has been, for a long time, Japan. I don't think we've done anything near enough to bring them under the fair trade rules, which would open up markets for us. Incorporating Japan into a regional agreement would create a trading system where everybody wins. There are no barriers to Japanese products in this country. But in all of the Asian countries there are barriers to our products.

Of all the jobs you've held, which was the most challenging?

They were all challenging. But if I had to pick one, chair of the Republican National Committee. It was after I had lost an election. The Republicans had gotten their clocks cleaned because of Watergate. In January of 1977, we were rebuilding. The word “Republican” was a dirty word to most Americans. They were thinking of changing the name of the party; it was that bad. Mary Louise Smith [the RNC chairwoman at the time] said, “Bill, we don't have to change the name of the party, we have to live up to it.” That became my mantra. Bringing the Republican Party back to what it really is: a small-government, pro-business conservative party that believes in individual freedom.

The GOP Message

Now the party is more closely identified with the wealthy and big business. Why do you think that changed?

I don't think the party has lost its instinct for grassroots. I do think that we have not had a clear message about Republicans' commitment to and belief in more freedom of opportunity to all business. Almost all of us believe that we're the party of small business. Big business can take care of itself; too many of them buy their way into politics, giving to both parties. The parties have gotten further apart, and I think it's dangerous. The Democrats have become more clearly the party of government. The Republicans have instinctively moved to become the party of enterprise. It may serve the parties well to make a clear line, but it is really dangerous for the American people to believe it's a black-and-white choice. There are areas where we clearly need logical regulations, but we also need to understand that the government does not create wealth. Business does.


Ashley DeVecht is Director of Communications for MSCI. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.