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A Vote on Trade

Wednesday, November 5, 1997; Page A20


FINALLY, CONGRESS is coming to the point of decision on President Clinton's trade bill. The Senate voted yesterday by a reassuring 69 to 31 to speed consideration of the measure. But the real test comes in the House, possibly Friday. Mr. Clinton is asking for "fast-track" authority – the right to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can then reject but cannot amend. Without this, most other countries won't even sit down to bargain with the United States; that's why Congress has granted such powers to every president since Gerald Ford.

You wouldn't think this would be a tough call. The United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, generates more than a fifth of its wealth. If it wants to maintain that kind of standard of living, it will have to sell more overseas. And with industries that lead the world in quality and innovation – and with U.S. markets already largely open – the United States stands to gain more than most from continued trade liberalization. Moreover, if Congress defeats this measure, U.S. leadership will be called into question far beyond the trade arena.

Yet the administration is having to wage an all-out, last-ditch campaign for congressional votes. Most Republicans support the trade bill, though some are reluctant to give Mr. Clinton a win, even on an issue of obvious national interest. The real opposition comes from Mr. Clinton's own party and its backers in the labor movement. They claim to support trade, but only if agreements come with guarantees of better working conditions and tougher environmental laws overseas.

To a large extent, this is simply putting new clothes on old-fashioned protectionism. But fast-track opponents also make an argument geared to the changing conditions of a globalizing economy, in which companies are freer than ever to relocate across borders, and so workers find themselves more than ever competing across borders. In such circumstances, the prohibition of child labor or the right to bargain collectively becomes a matter of more than domestic concern. The proposed fast-track legislation acknowledges as much, allowing the president to negotiate sanctions for countries that lower their standards in order to attract foreign investment. But fast-track opponents want more.

The question eventually becomes whether you want to limit trade if you can't force your trading partners to upgrade their labor and environmental standards entirely to your satisfaction. And here's where the opponents' argument breaks down, because increasing trade is demonstrably the route to more prosperity and higher incomes in developing countries, which in turn will provide the most favorable climate for bringing their working conditions closer to U.S. standards.

Last week's turbulence in financial markets, which began in Thailand and spread to Wall Street, showed once again how linked the world's economies have become. The question now is whether the United States can continue to play a significant role in shaping the rules of the new global economy. To deny the president that ability would be reckless and self-defeating.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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