By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
As President Bush was out in Peoria touting the virtues of foreign trade and asking for fresh authority to promote it, newly ascendant Democrats on Capitol Hill signaled just how tough it's going to be for the president to get what he wants.
In a hearing, Democrats repeated earlier warnings that they are unlikely to approve pending trade pacts with Peru, Colombia and Panama unless the administration agrees to provisions tightening labor and environmental protections in those countries. They pledged to demand similar labor rules before extending the president's authority to negotiate new trade deals.
"We have had trade policies in this administration that assume that trade is an end in itself, that market forces will work themselves out, that there isn't really an active role for government," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs a House subcommittee on trade. "We've had a tremendous loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs."
The new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), presided over a wide-ranging discussion that touched on how to prevent companies from shifting production to exploitative factories in poor countries, how to confront China over allegedly unfair trade practices and how to help Americans who lose jobs.
The hearing took place as President Bush visited the Illinois headquarters of Caterpillar, the construction-equipment giant and a highly successful exporter. There, the president asked Congress to extend his so-called trade promotion authority -- his legal right to negotiate trade pacts that he can submit to lawmakers for a simple up-or-down vote. It expires at the end of June, and without it, trade deals stand little chance of getting through Congress as individual legislators pick them apart to protect jobs in their districts.
The administration is intent on gaining an extension in hopes of restarting talks aimed at lowering tariffs around the world. Those talks, known as the Doha round of trade negotiations, have been stalled for months over American and European unwillingness to pare farm subsidies and over claims from India and other poor countries that they will not benefit enough from opening their markets further to foreign goods.
In recent days, trade ministers have been meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to try to jump-start the talks. Though most analysts assume the prospect of a breakthrough remains dim, U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab offered tempered optimism yesterday.
"This was the first time we had a large group of trade ministers gathering in one venue where there was clear agreement on the need to move forward with the Doha round and a sense of urgency that if at all possible we need to identify a means of achieving a breakthrough," Schwab said at a news conference in Geneva.
During the House hearing, and in a flurry of written statements, Democrats said they would not readily give the president the extension he seeks, expressing skepticism about the administration's willingness to ensure that trade deals benefit American workers.
"It requires a great deal of trust," Rangel said in a statement. "Congress must have some key assurances before it is willing to extend this leverage."
But as the chairman acknowledged during the hearing, turning Bush down would carry political risks. The Doha talks have been aimed at extending the benefits of globalization to poor countries. If Democrats refuse to extend the president's authority, that could convince the Europeans that concessions would be futile, since any agreement could die in a quagmire of congressional amendment-making.
"If we don't give trade promotion authority, we have to have a good reason for not giving it," Rangel said.
Yesterday's House hearing, which ran for more than three hours, revealed the competing views on trade that now divide the nation.
Several Republican lawmakers from districts where companies enjoy strong exports called for congressional approval of the Colombia and Peru trade deals to extend the good times.
"We're not at the mercy of globalization; we control our own destiny," said Grant D. Aldonas, a former Bush administration undersecretary of commerce for international trade. He noted that Wal-Mart had become emblematic of the threats seen by foes of cheap imports, but those same imports help people living on limited paychecks. "Every day Sam Walton's store is open for business, it's delivering globalization to the American doorstep," Aldonas said.
Democratic lawmakers and some panelists kept the focus on the costs of expanded trade -- the steady move of manufacturing jobs to lower-cost countries.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group critical of globalization, said the United States needed expanded benefits for laid-off workers and health care coverage to address the gap between rich and poor before embracing further trade.
"How are people going to accept further liberalization when they are anxious in their daily life?" he asked. "Let's get things right in the United States before we press further down this road."