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The Trade Bill

Wednesday, September 17 1997; Page A18


THE PRESIDENT sent Congress his proposed trade bill yesterday. It had been delayed a week while the administration searched for ways to make it more palatable to labor, environmental and other critics without vitiating its purpose and without losing votes on the other side of the debate. But the president had relatively little wiggle room, and the assurances the administration offered the critics yesterday were not so much statutory as political: Trust us to include in future trade agreements as much support for U.S. labor and environmental standards as we possibly can.

This is procedural legislation only. It empowers the president to negotiate further agreements that would then be subject to congressional approval but on a so-called fast-track basis, meaning debate would be limited and no amendments would be allowed; the agreements could only be voted up or down. Without such assurances, other countries would be reluctant to negotiate; why bother to reach a detailed agreement with the executive branch if the legislative branch can then amend those details?

The goal of the process is freer trade. The fear of the critics is that this will further open the U.S. market to competition from low-wage countries with weak environmental laws, only rudimentary systems of health and safety regulation, etc. The United States will lose jobs, so they argue, while U.S. wages and high regulatory standards are undercut. They would confer fast-track status only on trade agreements that require foreign competitors to meet "enforceable labor and environmental standards" somehow defined. But of course other countries would be reluctant to agree to such conditions, so that trade-expanding agreements would be harder if not generally impossible to reach.

The administration argues that trade adds more jobs in this country than it costs, and that only trade – not fiat – can ultimately succeed in raising living standards abroad. We think that's right, but a lot of people – many of them represented in Congress by Democrats – don't believe it. The party is split; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, thought to be a leading rival to Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2000, opposes fast track.

The Clinton bill doesn't say the president must negotiate the kinds of assurances the critics seek. Rather, the president promises and reserves the right to negotiate as many such protections as he can, including in side agreements. The hope is that the promise will provide enough Democrats with enough political cover to pass the bill. Perhaps it will help Mr. Gore as well in making the case that he is not indifferent to these issues. And maybe there will in fact be some useful nudging of other countries in progressive directions. They ought to pass this bill, and our sense is that, after a lot of venting – and some healthy consciousness-raising – they will.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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