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Pushing for Open Trade

Tuesday, October 7 1997; Page A16


WHAT WILL likely be the key trade bill of President Clinton's second term is approaching a crucial juncture. The Senate Finance Committee has approved a version with strong bipartisan support; the House Ways and Means Committee is set to begin consideration tomorrow on its own variant. But it's by no means clear that Congress will reconcile the two and complete work on so-called fast-track legislation this year; such a failure could doom its prospects, given the approaching election and the strong emotions generated by the bill. "I fear if we do not get it done this year," says Ways and Means chairman Rep. Bill Archer, "we may not get it in this century." That would be bad news for the U.S. economy.

The heat of the debate may be surprising, given that what's at stake is a procedural bill. Fast-track legislation allows the president to negotiate trade agreements and then bring them back to Congress for an up-or-down vote, rather than have them be amended and picked at. Without such assurance, no other government would embark on a complex, time-consuming negotiation. So Congress isn't voting here on any specific trade agreement, but without this bill there won't be any measures opening other nations' markets to U.S. goods. Congress has given this authority to every president since Gerald Ford, usually without much fanfare.

This year, though, the debate has become a lightning rod for the anxiety many people feel about the growing interconnectedness of the world economy. Many Democrats and labor unions want to stop fast-track in its tracks, because they believe trade only serves to take jobs away from American workers. They would allow new trade agreements only with countries that promise to meet high labor and environmental standards – promises that could be enforced by means of trade sanctions. In response to this demand, some Republicans would essentially bar the president from even discussing labor and environmental matters in trade talks.

Both extreme views are wrong. For the most part, trade leads to job creation, not job loss; and the best way to promote higher wages in poor countries is to promote trade and the prosperity it can bring. But there are also times when labor and the environment are properly subjects of international negotiation; most nations have agreed, after all, to bar child labor and other abuses. The Senate bill recognizes as much when it cites as a legitimate goal of negotiations preventing other countries from lowering their standards – whether in labor-law enforcement or health, safety and environmental regulation – in order to inhibit U.S. exports or unfairly attract U.S. investment.

The arithmetic of trade on Capitol Hill is pretty clear: Republicans will be key to passage, but they can't do it without some Democratic votes. As a result, it's encouraging that some House Republicans may be willing to compromise a bit. The differences in approach now are minute compared with the damage the United States would suffer if no bill is passed and this country is relegated to the sidelines of global trade politics.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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