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Was Mark Foley Blackmailed to Secure His Vote on CAFTA?

SANHO TREE / Counterpunch | October 17 2006

What does Mark Foley's vote on CAFTA have to do with his no longer secret sex life? In late July of 2005, Congressman Foley suddenly reversed his position and cast the key swing vote which led to the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

On the night of the vote, President Bush had called Foley to pressure him to change his anti-CAFTA position. The South Florida Congressman was not only under pressure from the White House, but also from the House Republican Leadership to support the bill. But Foley received huge campaign contributions from the Florida sugar lobby, which bitterly opposed CAFTA and Foley had loyally followed his benefactor's wishes in previous votes. That he would flip his position under pressure raises some serious questions.

The sugar lobby abhorred CAFTA because it would expose them to competition from Central American sugar imports. Foley, the single largest House recipient of sugar industry contributions during the 2004 election cycle, represented the third largest sugar producing district in the US. Just a month before the vote, he told the House Ways and Means Committee, "I have heard some of my colleagues say we can't turn our backs on people in Guatemala. Well, I can't turn my back on people in South Bay and Canal Point, Lewiston, and LaBelle, whose lives are closely linked to this industry. Not the big growers, not the thousand-acre plantations, but the mom and pop [growers] who have 50 acres, 100 acres in production. That is all they have."

So why did the Republican leadership think it could pressure Foley to betray his constituents and how did they persuade him to change his position?

The day after the vote, Foley said the Republican leadership had threatened reprisals against the sugar lobby if they were thought to be a major factor in killing CAFTA, but this defies logic. According to the New York Times the day after the vote (July 29, 2005):

"It was difficult, a gut-wrenching night," Mr. Foley said on Thursday. President Bush called him about 8:20 p.m. Wednesday to plead for his vote, he said, and Republican leaders had already made it clear that they would punish the sugar industry in the next farm bill if they managed to defeat the trade pact.

What could the Republican party possibly gain by throwing a tantrum against such a powerful lobby in an all important battleground state like Florida? Such reprisals would only help drive the sugar industry's campaign contributions to Democrats, so Foley's public explanation for his vote seems highly questionable.

How could the Republican leadership have gotten Foley to betray his "sugar daddy" and support his district's loss of countless jobs? Since it was widely known on Capitol Hill that Foley was a closeted homosexual, he was never going to rise above the "lavender ceiling" in the Republican party leadership. Moreover, he had raised prodigious amounts of campaign money, so what other kinds of leverage did they have against him other than his sex scandals simmering beneath the surface?

For the White House and the Republican Congressional Leadership the CAFTA was a signature issue that year. The telephone calls between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue must have been frantic and the logs of such calls should be preserved.

But who could they flip? What leverage or sweeteners did they have? Did they attempt to blackmail him by letting political rivals "out" him? Or did they "greymail" him by promising to help Foley sweep these emerging scandals under the rug? Or did they promise to try to give him a "soft landing" in the event the allegations should become public?

If Foley's sexcapades were even whispered in this political context that day, then this scandal could lead right in to the White House and possibly even to the Oval Office.

Is this another smoking gun which will emerge when House Members and staff are put under oath? Whatever the truth is, the official rational behind Mr. Foley's vote switch has never made much sense. He and the Republican Leadership should be asked to explain his shifting position on the CAFTA vote.

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