President Clinton today renewed a call for "fast track" authority to negotiate -- without congressional interference -- international trade agreements with improved labor and environmental safeguards.
At the same time, Clinton announced that he had signed an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from buying products made with forced or abusive child labor, in an effort to encourage an open trading system with humane labor standards.
In a speech to graduating students at the University of Chicago, Clinton called for "free and fair trade" that will expand global commercial exchanges that benefit all people.
"The only way to do that is to have trade agreements that lift everybody up, not pull everyone down," he said, asserting that growth broadly shared is better sustained.
Noting that the United States has about 4.5 percent of the world's population and 22 percent of its income, Clinton said the nation must sell its products to other nations to survive economically. But at the same time, he said, it has to stand firm against "disruptions" such as the dumping of steel by some countries. His remarks came as some industries, including the steel industry, are seeking more restrictions on free trade.
The president said he also wanted to expand trading opportunities in Central and South America and bring China into the World Trade Organization.
"We have to spread the benefits of global growth more widely. . . . We have to widen the cradle of opportunity," the president told the graduating seniors. In an appeal that appeared directed at free trade skeptics who are environmentally conscious, Clinton said he would ask Congress to give him the ability to link the creation of more global markets with efforts to protect the world from such threats as increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
"It is not true anymore that you can't grow the economy without destroying the environment," Clinton said.
Clinton has been seeking a renewal of fast-track trade negotiating authority since it expired in 1994, but Congress has failed to act on his requests in the face of complaints by U.S. farmers that competitors such as Canada and European Union countries are benefiting from new agreements to open markets. In the face of strong labor union opposition, measures that would give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements that could not be amended by Congress are seen as having little chance of passing until after the 2000 elections.
The president's comments about child labor foreshadowed an address he is scheduled to give in Geneva next week to the International Labor Organization, which has been considering a convention that would ban the most abusive forms of child labor. The convention is intended to establish a global standard for protecting children against forced or indentured labor, child prostitution or pornography, drug trafficking and work that is likely to harm the health and safety of children.
He said he was appalled by the conditions in which 8- and 9-year-old children work in many countries, adding, "We have to start the abolition of child labor."
White House economic adviser Gene Sperling said that the Labor Department will have four months to compile a list of products with a history of child labor and that any time a federal agency buys a product on the list it will have to ascertain that the contractor did not purchase it from a plant engaging in abusive child labor, even if it is the low bidder.
"This is not an area where you should do a cost-benefit analysis," Sperling said. "We don't believe the American taxpayer wants to be subsidizing the production of goods made with child labor." Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a strident opponent of child labor, said Clinton's order sends a "strong signal at home and abroad that the U.S. government is serious about eradicating abusive and exploitative child labor."
Presidential aides said Clinton's speech was one of several intended to promote a consensus on more open trade that economists say will lead to the creation of a global middle class and a further reduction in protectionism. Sperling said the University of Chicago was an especially appropriate venue because of its strong advocacy of free markets.
Clinton, wearing the blue-hooded gown of his alma mater, Yale University Law School, shook the hands of nearly 820 graduates during a three-hour ceremony under gray, threatening skies.
However, several students refused to shake the president's hand as they accepted their diplomas, including one who triumphantly raised his hands to scattered cheers as he walked off the platform.
CAPTION: President Clinton and Hugo Sonnenschein, University of Chicago president, chat before Clinton's address to 1999 graduates on trade and labor issues.