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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The real scandal of Tom DeLay

•  Jack in a box
• Bush shows support for DeLay
Tom DeLay
Frank Murkowski

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Creators Syndicate) -- Forget the freebie trips across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Forget the casinos and the allegedly illicit contributions -- they represent only degrees of avarice.

To grasp the moral bankruptcy of the public Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, you only have to know about Frank Murkowski and Saipan.

Today, Frank Murkowki is the governor of Alaska, but from 1980 to 2002, he was a conservative Republican senator from Alaska.

How conservative? His voting record earned him zero ratings from organized labor's AFL-CIO and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and perfect 100s from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union.

But as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Frank Murkowski became furious at the abusive sweatshop conditions endured by workers, overwhelmingly immigrants, in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Saipan is the capital.

Because they were produced in a territory of the United States, garments traveled tariff-free and quota-free to the profitable U.S. market and were entitled to display the coveted "Made in the USA" label.

Among the manufacturers that had profited from the un-free labor market on the island were Tommy Hilfiger USA, Gap, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne.

Moved by the sworn testimony of U.S. officials and human-rights advocates that the 91 percent of the workforce who were immigrants -- from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks minus plumbing, work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, without any of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, Murkowski wrote a bill to extend the protection of U.S. labor and minimum-wage laws to the workers in the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas.

So compelling was the case for change the Alaska Republican marshaled that in early 2000, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Murkowski worker reform bill.

But one man primarily stopped the U.S. House from even considering that worker-reform bill: then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay.

According to law firm records recently made public, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, paid millions to stop reform and keep the status quo, met personally at least two dozen times with DeLay on the subject in one two-year period. The DeLay staff was often in daily contact with Abramoff.

DeLay traveled with his family and staff over New Year's of 1997 on an Abramoff scholarship endowed by his client, the government of the territory, to the Marianas, where golf and snorkeling were enjoyed.

DeLay fully approved of the working and living conditions. The Texan's salute to the owners and Abramoff's government clients was recorded by ABC-TV News: "You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system"

Later, DeLay would tell The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin that the low-wage, anti-union conditions of the Marianas constituted "a perfect petri dish of capitalism. It's like my Galapagos Island."

Contrast that with what then-Sen. Murkowski told me in a 1998 interview: "The last time we heard a justification that economic advances would be jeopardized if workers were treated properly was shortly before Appomattox."

The "Made in the USA" label means standards of quality and standards of conduct.

But more important than how a product is made is how the people who make that product are treated -- as human beings with innate dignity -- who are free to organize and entitled to a living wage.

Did somebody say something about moral values?

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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