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The Revolt Against Fast Track

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 7, 1997; Page A25


"Every time a trade vote comes up, a grand new world is described to the American worker." Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York's Westchester County suburbs, cares about enhancing workers' rights, protecting the environment and guaranteeing that food imported into the United States is safe to eat. She's also a free trader who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So should Congress vote to give President Clinton authority to negotiate new free trade agreements on what's called a "fast track"? About this, Lowey has been agonizing. Her agony is shared by many of her colleagues, no matter how they vote this week on the year's big trade issue.

Lowey and her fellow agonizers are unhappy because they don't trust the quasi-religious arguments made by partisans of free trade, but they also believe the United States has no choice but to compete in the world market. "The arguments on both sides are inflated," Lowey says, speaking a truth rarely voiced.

Under fast track, Congress retains the right to reject the trade pacts negotiated by the president but agrees not to amend them. In principle, it makes sense to give the president this leeway. The United States is now in a strong position to push open new markets for our products. Europe is scrambling to compete in Latin America, and the United States wants to be on at least an equal footing.

Since the American market is so open, new trade deals ought to do more good than harm. And expanding world prosperity is in our interests. We have to sell our products somewhere.

But there is a rote quality to the free-trade argument. Every time a trade vote comes up, a grand new world is described to the American worker. Free trade will make everyone richer. Yes, there will be some inequities. But don't worry, say free trade champions, we'll take care of those displaced by the new economic order. Go with us on free trade and we'll make sure that those left out are given a chance to prosper, too.

President Clinton is as articulate as anyone in making this case. "This must not be an either-or choice," he told the Democratic Leadership Council last week. "We must embrace both the global economy and the idea that there should be a social compact of mutual interdependence and responsibility." Clinton pledged to make sure "that our people have the strength, the skills, the security, the flexibility" to "reap the rewards of the 21st century."

The revolt against fast track is the revolt of those who feel that this bargain isn't being kept. The trade agreements pass. The promises to help those displaced by the agreements prove to be nothing but promises. Many congressional free traders will vote no on fast track because they want attention paid to the forgotten part of the deal.

Many will also vote no because there is a strange inconsistency in the argument of those who say that rules on the environment, labor and food safety should be kept out of trade talks. As Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pointed out on the floor of the House, health and environmental standards in our country can be challenged by other countries as "trade barriers." These matters are already at issue in world trade. Wouldn't it serve open trade to codify rules on labor and health, as we do on other crucial matters such as trademark, copyright and intellectual property?

Lowey expresses the dilemma of those who believe in open trade based on sensible rules. "I believe, in my heart and in my brain, that labor and environmental and food safety issues should be part of fast track," she said in an interview. "At the same time, I believe the United States must compete aggressively in the global economy. . . . New jobs are coming from new products and new technologies and our ability to export them."

If fast track fails, it will not be because of "special interest" pressure, a term always applied to labor opponents of fast track but only occasionally to its supporters. (Lowey, by the way, reports that she's getting ample pressure from both sides.) It will fail because the vision painted by the friends of free trade is not being realized, especially for those at the bottom of the economy.

If fast track passes, President Clinton needs to go back and read his old speeches – and get his Republican allies to read them, too. He made a lot of promises to get this negotiating authority. If he doesn't keep them, opposition to open trade will grow.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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