With every election year come variations on an old political rule: Find someone to blame, and be sure he can't vote in your district. This year the congressional Democratic leadership in the House has done it again.
When the House passed the Omnibus Trade Reform Bill of 1986 last month, there was something in it for everyone -- except American workers and consumers. Sure, there are some thoughtful proposals in this legislation, some of which the administration itself has been making for the past five years. Unfortunately, even a few good proposals to reform the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or to encourage trade negotiations with the rest of the world can't salvage this so-called reform bill, from the garbage heap of Rambo-like reactionary logic. The rest of it is filled with every overaged legislative turkey in the congressional larder.
Let's look at just three examples from the bill that illustrate how ill-conceived this hodgepodge of contradictions is.
One provision would require 10 percent annual reductions in the U.S. trade deficits with Germany, Taiwan and Japan. Can anyone really expect the United States to gain from such a mindless action as simply stopping all imports from these countries when a certain number is reached? If it is fair for us to close our doors to imports, is it not fair for others to disrupt our capital flows, investments and jobs by setting similar quotas for U.S. exports? They did it in 1930, and history will repeat itself.
Another portion of the bill would define as yet undefined "unfair labor practices" in foreign countries as "unfair trade practices" which U.S. firms can petition against and which the president can retaliate against. Not a bad idea until you think about it.
One of the bill's labor standards is the right to organize. How shall we define this standard when the cafeteria workers in the House of Representatives are prohibited by Congress from organizing in a collective bargaining unit? How should we define the standard dealing with worker health and safety when some Scandinavian countries have stricter standards than our own OSHA?
If we truly believe in these provisions and expect the president to enforce them, will we not succeed in cutting off all trade with the People's Republic of China, or with Hungary and Czechoslovakia, much less with desperately poor nations such as the Philippines, or those in Latin America and Africa?
Slave labor is one thing -- and it is repugnant to all Americans. But do we really intend to hold other nations up to all of our standards, regardless of their level of development, type of government, distribution of income or their positive efforts to employ their citizens and encourage equity? This is American arrogance at its worst, and a thinly disguised scheme to keep goods from certain countries (mostly small and poor ones) out of the U.S. market.
U.S. laws and international agreements have been built up over the past 50 years to protect us against unfair trade. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has acted to improve those laws and agreements -- and to enforce them vigorously. Both political parties have supported trade negotiations to liberalize world trade, promote fair trade and oppose outright protectionism. At least they have until now. And Americans have benefited mightily. Eight million citizens in this nation are dependent for their jobs on international trade. By what conceivable logic can Congress now put their employment at risk? It isn't for "fair" trade, for this bill makes no such essential distinction.
Bashing our competitors out of spite and envy is neither constructive nor honorable. Indonesia is not responsible for declining test scores in math and science of our high school graduates. Brazil is not responsible for declines in U.S. productivity or high absenteeism in hunting season. Germany is not to blame for sloppy management or shortsighted business decisions of some U.S. executives who have cared more about a quarterly return on investments than about making quality products.
Instead of facing up to the tough questions at the foundation of our competitiveness as a nation, the House has opted for a bag of fake quick fixes and political huckstering.
Our future depends upon our ability to better educate and train our children for a competitive environment, to cut federal deficits in order to invest more for retooling and modernization, to reform and reduce taxes in order to provide our working men and women with the tools to be productive, to produce quality in the short term and make business decisions for the long term. The House trade bill simply hopes to guarantee a few jobs by cutting off trade, cutting off new job growth, cutting off the future. It pretends that the world can stay the way it was if only we ignore the changes around us.
I really do understand the difficulty such an all-encompassing bill poses for individual members of Congress who have real trade-related economic problems in their own districts. They might find it necessary to swallow so much bad medicine for a bit of (probably very temporary) relief. Yet this will account for no more than 100 votes. Where did the other 195 come from? Where are the thoughtful Democrats? They know better, most of them. Is their party circumstance so desperate that the national interest has to be set aside?
The writer is secretary of labor, and a former member of Congress and U.S. special trade representative.