President Clinton is facing a major rebellion of Democrats in the House of Representatives over the North American Free Trade Agreement because he did not deliver on candidate Clinton's dozen promises to fix the Bush NAFTA. Although eschewing Rep. Richard Gephardt's demand for renegotiation, candidate Clinton in his Oct. 4, 1992, NAFTA policy statement did condition his support for NAFTA on specific, enforceable improvements through side agreements.

Clinton promised to fix NAFTA to ensure truck and food safety, to protect U.S. environmental and consumer laws from destructive trade challenges by foreign governments and to safeguard existing rights of workers and farmers. He further said that safeguards were needed to democratize NAFTA's autocratic procedures and open them to public participation.

Yet most of the NAFTA improvements that candidate Clinton had demanded never even made it to the table during the side-agreement negotiations. Those few that did were rendered meaningless by the side agreements' labyrinthian procedures and bizarre escape clauses. The top Mexican trade negotiator, in a statement to the Mexican congress, accurately shrugged off these side agreements as inconsequential. Then, in a development that should be especially embarrassing for some environmental groups and others who had been induced into relying on these side agreements, the White House recently admitted that a government that violated or withdrew from the side agreements would still be a standing member of NAFTA. Finally, in an astonishing concession designed to appease Newt Gingrich, Clinton has chosen not to let Congress vote on the side agreements, a tactic that renders the trade sanctions unconstitutional.

What is left is the Bush NAFTA that subordinates important values -- health, environmental protection, democracy, freedom of information and the like -- to the only thing that matters to the multinational corporations: the imperatives of international commerce.

NAFTA, as well as the upcoming expansion of GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, invades areas previously out of bounds for trade agreements, placing a trapdoor under domestic health and safety standards and hobbling citizen advocacy efforts to make them stronger. As Rep. Henry Waxman wrote in a principled and detailed letter to the president announcing his NAFTA opposition: "The NAFTA would allow another country to challenge our health and safety standards." Such challenges would be heard before secret trade tribunals empowered to second-guess U.S. laws. Neither citizens nor state nor local governments, whose laws are being directly attacked, can participate; only national governments can and, then, in secrecy. The panel decisions are unreviewable. U.S. courts and due process have no role.

Should such a tribunal declare a U.S. standard a nontariff trade barrier under NAFTA, the United States would incur sanctions until it weakened or repealed its laws. When this is combined with another NAFTA mandate to "harmonize" standards between countries, one can expect a "pull down" of U.S. standards.

There are, for example, large differentials between Mexican and U.S. food- and truck-safety standards and U.S. and Canadian standards on asbestos. Companies that would like to end-run the tougher U.S. legislation and rules will have the opportunity to press Mexico and Canada to file NAFTA challenges. U.S. firms that have thus far failed in their attempts to weaken the standards through domestic politics, will now have a new tool with which to chip away, working beyond the constraints of U.S. democracy.

Everything NAFTA touches becomes more autocratic and less democratic. From its morbidly secretive conception by corporate lobbyists and their Bush administration allies, to the fast-track procedural straitjacket that prohibits amendments to NAFTA, to the decisions by the inaccessible international tribunals that are alien to this country's jurisprudential practices, NAFTA diminishes U.S. democracy.

Moreover, NAFTA's Realpolitik serves to entrench the dictatorial regime in Mexico, to the pain of millions of Mexican workers, human rights activists and political dissenters. Mickey Kantor, Clinton's trade representative, tells people that NAFTA is important because "we must assure that {Mexican President Carlos} Salinas can name his successor." Using this trade agreement to continue six decades of one-party rule in Mexico is, on an ethical plane, bad enough. But the Clinton administration also ignores the fact that by repressing wages and not enforcing labor and environmental laws and citizen rights, the Mexican regime can lure U.S. companies southward, and, with its stable dictatorship, give them an unfair competitive advantage over firms that remain in the United States.

The theory of beneficial trade stumbles when a modest democracy moves toward an economic union with a dictatorial government. The European Common Market understood this point with regard to Spain, Portugal and Greece and preconditioned political and economic reforms as a ticket for entry.

Trade agreements should neither diminish democracy nor entrench dictatorships. The harm in NAFTA is in the little-read details that are full of Trojan mice and arcane loopholes. For example, foreign governments could challenge many of Mr. Gore's favorite green procurement measures and incentives for energy conservation and solar projects. Exempted from such challenges are subsidies for oil and gas development.

Set aside the hysterical hype over the global consequences of a NAFTA defeat, the degrading White House pork-trading for congressional votes and the flurry of corporate-funded think tank projections. Consider, instead, the corrosive effect on democracy of the present agreement as it is extended to other countries. It is the expansion of democracy, not a transnational autocratic regime, that spells broad-based and sustainable economic development for the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

In urging President Clinton to withdraw the Bush NAFTA -- and in its place to renegotiate a new, forward-looking, "pull-up" agreement -- Rep. Henry Waxman speaks for a majority of House Dem- ocrats. They are trying to rescue President Clinton and Vice President Gore from their broken preelection promises and a likely electoral backlash.

If NAFTA passes, next year an invasive expanded GATT will come before Congress. For Clinton, being once in hock to House Republicans and their corporate constituency raises questions about his political identity. But to be twice allied with them on basic economic and power issues against mainstream Democratic constituencies can prompt tumultuous political realignments across the country. Much as he might like to, Clinton cannot realistically say he will be able to shield his congressional backers from the consequences.

The writer founded Public Citizen.