With a cease fire in the Persian Gulf, the Bush administration and Congress can start fighting over trade policy. At least three separate issues are converging that will pit free-traders against protectionists, multinational corporations against labor and Republicans against Democrats.
At stake is nothing less than the future of the world trading system, the fate of President Bush's call for a free trading zone embracing the U.S., Canada and Mexico and bilateral trade relations between the U.S. and its key trading partners.
On each question, the Bush administration presents the more persuasive case. It is seeking "fast-track" authority so it can negotiate trade agreements subject to quick up-or-down votes with no amendments allowed. And it is opposing efforts to renew and even toughen mandatory retaliatory measures against trading competitors who, by U.S. prescription, engage in unfair practices.
In coming weeks, Capitol Hill will ring with rhetoric about preserving congressional prerogatives to shape trade legislation. Despite its surface plausibility, don't believe this argument. The real issue is whether the executive branch is to have the credibility to negotiate complicated trade agreements. If foreign nations know Congress can nibble to death any pact offered to it, there won't be any. A new world trade pact under the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) won't materialize. A free trade zone from the Yukon to the Yucatan will remain a figment of President Bush's imagination.
Complicating the picture is a related effort to renew the "Super 301" provisions of the 1988 trade act which force the executive branch to penalize countries with "broadly restrictive" trade practices. While the provisions did put pressure on Japan, especially, the administration believes Super 301 has worn out its welcome. We would add it has hurt the U.S. negotiating position in GATT because Washington is seen as unilaterally imposing conditions that are supposed to be set by universal GATT rules. This is counter-productive. An expanded GATT that would make agriculture, service industries and patents subject to international rules is very much in the U.S. public interest.
At this stage, such influential Democrats as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, who chair committees with jurisdiction over trade, favor extending the fast-track authority. Other Democrats, including House majority leader Richard Gephardt and Maryland's two senators, want protectionist measures that run counter to the whole spirit of an open world trading system.
The situation suggests that Senator Bentsen would make a more acceptable Democratic presidential candidate than Representative Gephardt in 1992 because he would remove some of the partisanship that usually erupts over trade policy.