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The Fast-Track Loss

Tuesday, November 11, 1997; Page A18


TRADE liberalization benefits most people, but it also invariably hurts a few. Those who are helped – as goods become cheaper, as standards of living rise, as exports grow – often don't attribute their good fortune to rising trade, which is after all only one component of a complex economy. Those who have lost their jobs or believe they have lost their jobs to overseas competition, on the other hand, don't hesitate to affix blame. In the political process, the losers and potential losers naturally lobby vociferously; the winners, a larger but more diffuse group, don't. To rise above the special interests of the losers (while taking into consideration their legitimate needs) and vote in the overall interest of society is what we should expect of our politicians – it has something to do with statesmanship. And until now, every Congress since President Ford's time has managed to do just that. But this Congress, in failing early Monday morning to approve trade-negotiating authority for President Clinton, did the opposite – it caved in to the special pleaders. Washington insiders will measure the defeat in its impact on Mr. Clinton – whether it spells the beginning of his lame-duckhood, and all the rest. But the more serious damage is to U.S. economic leadership – America's ability to help shape the global rule book – and, potentially, to global economic prosperity.

The post mortems will find no shortage of culprits. Mr. Clinton overpromised on NAFTA and underdelivered on the promises he made to Congress to win NAFTA's approval. He waited too long to push for renewed negotiating authority – known as "fast track," because it allows him to negotiate treaties that Congress can reject but not amend – and then didn't even have legislation ready when he finally, this fall, began the campaign for what he called his most important legislative priority. More broadly, his inconstancy over the years left many members of Congress unwilling to put faith in his promises and assurances. Businesses, which generally support free trade, jumped into the fight too late and too half-heartedly. And 25 Republican congressmen who could have provided the margin of victory but who withheld their backing in a failed effort to extort support from Mr. Clinton for an unrelated (and unjustified) proposal to gut America's family-planning assistance overseas, also bear responsibility.

But of course the lion's share of blame – or credit, as they would have it – goes to Mr. Clinton's fellow Democrats and their backers in organized labor. In the end, fewer than 45 of 205 House Democrats were ready to stand by their president. In part, this reflects the growing importance of union contributions to political campaigns. Since the Democrats lost control of the House, businesses have shifted their giving heavily to Republicans; total Democratic receipts from political action committees have gone down, and the union share has gone up – to 46 percent in 1996.

Of course, most Democrats said they were voting on the merits, not the dollars. But while fast track's defeat may be good news for a few unions, such as in the textile trades – though even that is arguable – it certainly doesn't help the vast majority of American workers. With the president less able to knock down trade barriers overseas, U.S. manufacturing firms will have more, not less, incentive to relocate, to get footholds inside closed markets. With exports growing more slowly, or not at all, fewer new jobs will be created. Less trade certainly won't help improve the standards of overseas workers, for whose welfare many Democrats claimed concern. And with U.S. government hamstrung, Japan, the European Union and developing countries will have a greater influence in shaping world trade policies. How hard do you think they'll push for improved labor and environmental standards?

Mr. Clinton yesterday withdrew his proposal before it could go down to defeat, and he said he intends to try again in this Congress. The signs are not auspicious, but you never know. Maybe next time the greater good will prevail.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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