FOUR YEARS AGO, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) achieved a sublime fusion of bad policy and bad process. He took an obnoxious trade measure, which had been pushed by protectionists for years but had always failed on the merits, and stuffed it into an agricultural spending bill that had already passed through the Senate and would therefore escape discussion. The resulting Byrd amendment was denounced by responsible figures from both parties. Delaware Sen. William V. Roth Jr., the moderate Republican chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over trade, protested Mr. Byrd's subversion of the legislative process. President Bill Clinton called on Congress to undo its mischief.
This week, however, Sen. John F. Kerry issued a statement defending Mr. Byrd's provision. Responding to the news that the World Trade Organization had given trading partners permission to retaliate against the Byrd amendment because it is inconsistent with U.S. treaty commitments, Mr. Kerry let out a unilateralist harrumph. "Once again the Bush administration failed to stand up for American companies and workers at the WTO, and as a result, unfair trade practices are hurting our economy and middle-class families."
By its own tally, the Bush administration has won 14 of 24 cases at the WTO, a slightly higher success rate than was achieved by the Clinton administration. It did not win the Byrd case for the good reason that it did not deserve to. The law allows weak American companies double protection against foreign competitors offering lower costs. They can bring traditional anti-dumping lawsuits demanding duties against foreign rivals, thus driving up rivals' costs; and, thanks to Mr. Byrd, they can pocket the duties, which had previously flowed to the government. So far, more than $800 million has been handed out to complaining firms as a result of the Byrd law. In ruling this subsidy unfair, the WTO was merely echoing the warnings of the Clinton administration four years ago.
Mr. Kerry is not the only one to support the bad Byrd law: Last year 70 senators signed a letter in defense of it. But this merely demonstrates that a majority of lawmakers pander to protectionist lobbies; it does not excuse Mr. Kerry. The candidate's statement looks forward to a time when, under his leadership, "We will have free trade and fair trade, where all countries play by the rules." But in defending the Byrd provision, Mr. Kerry shows respect for neither international rules nor the WTO, which has the tough job of policing the level playing field the candidate claims to believe in.