The bill passed through the house on July 16, after months of contentious debate. The movement to block the bill was led by the fast-rising 34-year-old rep from Chicago, Jesse Jackson Jr., who blasted the measure as the "Re-Colonization Act," and tried to counter with an alternative bill he called "HOPE for Africa."
Surprisingly, the quiet instigator of the whole controversy was Seattle's U.S. Rep, Dr. Jim McDermott, the progressive Democrat widely credited with raising political consciousness about AIDS in Africa more than a decade ago. McDermott didn't just vote for the bill Jackson had hoped to take down. His office wrote it.
McDermott has always been an avid supporter of both universal health care and intellectual property rights, both international aid and free trade. Now his critics are wondering if some of McDermott's most strongly held values aren't contradictory.
The bill McDermott wrote, a kind of NAFTA for Africa, would open up U.S. markets to African countries and encourage private investment in the region by multinational corporations. Jackson and other critics say opening up African markets without protecting local economies is a recipe for exploitation, offering more rights to U.S. corporations than to African governments.
That's where AIDS comes into play, specifically the U.S. pharmaceutical industry's strident attempts to prevent African governments from making AIDS medicine more accessible.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 12 million people have died from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. But AIDS drug cocktails, which cost about $12,000 a year in African countries where the per capita income is often less than $1,000, are virtually unobtainable there.
One reason the drugs are so expensive is the economics of intellectual property rights. A company that holds a patent on a medicine has no competition and no obligation to charge anything other than monopoly prices. International Non-Governmental Organizations like Doctors without Borders argue that one way to bring down the price of these medicines is to limit the company's exclusive intellectual property rights, and to introduce competition.
The South African government has been trying to bring prices down with a Medicines Act. The law would allow the government to license patented products to local companies, making way for generic drugs to reach the market.
"It's not like South Africa is some rogue state that's going about this in an irresponsible manner," explains Stephen Gloyd, the director of the University of Washington's International Health Program. "They're basically saying patent rights shouldn't be allowed to override human rights."
But the U.S. government has been bullying South Africa to stop their efforts. The biggest lobbying group convincing the U.S. to fight South Africa on this issue is PhRMA, the powerful coalition of 100 U.S. pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
McDermott's critics accuse him of siding with the drug companies at the expense of ordinary people in Africa. That's because his bill completely ignores the AIDS crisis. Jackson's alternative -- the HOPE for Africa bill -- tackles the issue straight on, mandating that no federal money be spent interfering with African programs to make medicines more affordable.
Mike Dolan of Public Citizen, the watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, says of McDermott, "He's so great on so many issues, but trade is his blind spot. He's one of the best friends the multinationals have in Congress."
David Schaefer, the longtime Seattle Times reporter who took over as McDermott's press secretary in March, defends his boss. He says McDermott's bill never purported to speak to the AIDS issue. "That's not what the bill is about. It's about trying to develop trade relations with Africa and allowing African countries access to U.S. markets. It's about creating jobs and opportunities for wealth. Arguing that it doesn't provide AIDS drugs is kind of silly."
Schaefer says that McDermott's critics are using spurious arguments to push an agenda of anti-free trade, and unjustly damaging McDermott's reputation in the process. "McDermott discovered AIDS in Africa for Congress," says Schaefer. "For these groups to come along 10 [to] 15 years later and say he's not doing anything about the AIDS epidemic there is laughable. It's an insult."
There's no denying that the debate around the two bills has been exaggerated at times. At one point, Jackson even compared McDermott's bill to slave-trade policies of the 17th century, writing, "We do not need a deal between undemocratic and permanently entrenched kings and presidents-for-life in Africa and multinational businesses in the United States." Jackson's proclamations haven't sat well with his colleagues, but they have helped make him one of the darlings of the new left -- fair trade activists, AIDS advocates, and readers of The Nation.
Of course, those aren't the people who turn bills into laws in D.C. As Schaefer points out -- correctly -- the bottom line is "McDermott's bill passed, and Jackson's won't."
That argument doesn't fly with Dolan, who sees Jackson's vision of progressive trade relations as the way of the future, and McDermott's bill as the latest installment of a flawed model. "That just shows that [McDermott's] calculus at the end of the day is a political calculus and not a policy calculus," he says. "That's one of the reasons people get excited about the concept of term limits."