Last year, Congress passed three trade deals with foreign countries — South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. Although these deals were referred to in mainstream political debate as “free trade” agreements, the truth is that all three agreements protected certain industries over others rather than completely drop trade barriers.  The agreements, like past free trade pacts, also favor multinational corporation interests over those of workers and U.S. jobs and over protection of health, safety and the environment.

The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Korean trade deal alone would cost 159,000 net American jobs. President Obama, a one-time critic but then later zealous advocate for the three deals, carefully avoided saying they would actually create jobs, saying that they would “support” American jobs.

Yet despite these drawbacks to the American economy, Congress passed the three deals by wide margins. Why? It’s likely that the answer has to do with the amount of corporate cash pushing the agreements. Let’s look at the influence of just one industry front group — Automotive Free International Trade (AFIT). In 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration made alterations to the Korea trade deal that won the support of major auto dealers like Ford Motor Company, which then switched to backing the deals to open up a new market for their cars. AFIT was a strong supporter of the Korea agreement, saying that such deals were “critical to the continued growth of the American economy.” The group’s Political Action Committee (PAC), financed by automotive industry dealers, showered Congressional candidates with money in the leadup to the 2010 elections.

In all, AFITPAC donated $696,500 to House and Senate candidates for the 2010 election cycle. In all, the PAC supported 120 candidates for House races and 28 candidates for Senate races. Of the candidates that AFITPAC supported, all but three — Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA), Joe Wilson (R-SC), and Robert Hurt (R-VA) — went on to support the Korea trade agreement. Of course, AFITPAC was far from the only corporate interest lobbying for the Korea agreement and the other trade deals, but the fact that it was able to buoy a select set of candidates who then went on to support the agreement is an important piece of the puzzle of why Congress backed job-killing trade deals amidst the ruins of the Great Recession.

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