Can't Be Bothered

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Tuesday, December 5, 2006

IT SHOULDN'T matter whether you're conservative or liberal, for globalization or against: Some trade bills are so obviously beneficial and unobjectionable that there's no excuse for letting them languish. This is the case with a raft of measures that would extend trade preferences for poor countries -- preferences due to expire at the end of the year. Failing to renew them would not save American jobs or advance any other national interest; rather, it would disrupt the economies of U.S. trading partners and create another excuse for foreigners to resent the United States. The lame-duck session of Congress provides a chance to avoid that outcome, but there's no guarantee members will act.

Four trade-preference measures are in jeopardy. The measures would prolong tariff concessions to Andean nations, allow African garments made with third-country fabrics into the U.S. market, extend a similar concession to Haiti and renew the Generalized System of Preferences, which helps more than 100 countries. Passing these measures would not involve granting new market access; it would avoid closing the U.S. market and triggering factory closures in partner countries. Meanwhile, Congress also needs to ratify Vietnam's membership in the World Trade Organization. Without ratification, Vietnam will join the WTO anyway, but the United States will not enjoy the access that Vietnam has granted other WTO partners. The more Congress delays, the greater the head start it will give European and Japanese companies seeking to establish themselves in a fast-growing market of 85 million people.

These trade measures might founder partly because anti-globalization sentiment is growing in Congress, causing a minority of members to oppose all trade deals, no matter how routine. Another factor is that the pro-trade chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), is complicating passage by loading up legislation with his own tactical wheezes. To punish India and Brazil for not doing more to secure passage of the Doha global trade liberalization package, Mr. Thomas wants to restrict the Bush administration's discretion to allow those countries access to U.S. markets, but Mr. Thomas should leave the calibration of sticks and carrots to the president's negotiating team. To encourage Africans to make garments out of locally produced textiles, Mr. Thomas wants to set impossibly tough targets for local content. He should leave the management of Africa's industrial development to Africans.

But the biggest reason these trade measures may fail is the most scandalous: Most members of Congress know that they ought to be extended, but institutional inertia is stopping them from doing the right thing. For the past several months, Congress has put off dealing with the trade preferences, even though their expiration at the end of the year was no secret. Now the deadline is approaching, and members of Congress complain that they lack time to craft the legislation. What Congress is saying is that leaving town for the holidays is more important than jobs in developing countries. No wonder the United States is seen as arrogant.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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