Free Trade, Fair Trade

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Fast track or slippery slope?

Congress is ready to put U.S.-Mexico free-trade negotiations on the fast track, but there are fears that the intended treaty will TTC inevitably mean lost jobs for American workers and weaker pollution standards for American industry.


The House majority leader, Dick Gephardt, is one of many Democrats who share this concern but are going along with the administration's plea for fast-track authority. Under it, Congress could not amend the resulting trade agreement, but only vote up or down after it is completed.

Mr. Gephardt makes eloquent points about the treaty's potential weaknesses, rhetoric that would sound good in next year's presidential campaign. But he is coy about whether he will run for the Democratic nomination again after trying and failing last time, and after the incumbent president's popularity ratings have held at record highs.


In 1988, standing up for U.S. workers against unfair foreign competition was the guts of the Gephardt platform. The current effort to join Mexico in a free-trade zone heightens the fears of American labor unions, and Mr. Gephardt voices those fears. But he insists he is no protectionist.

While acknowledging that fast-track authority will pass, he strongly supports a resolution asserting that both environmental and labor concerns must be covered before Congress approves the resulting treaty. He and other skeptics are afraid that dearly won anti-pollution rules and worker protection in this country may be trimmed back in the name of fair trade with Mexico.

Only last week, Mexico challenged a U.S. ban on its tuna, imposed because Mexican tuna fleets kill too many dolphins. Mexico maintains this is merely a means of protecting American tuna fishermen, rather than a legitimate environmental regulation. Mexico also is arguing against labels that proclaim cans of tuna "dolphin-safe," asserting that the labels discriminate against imported tuna.

How an international trade court rules on those cases will affect myriad other environmental and anti-pollution rules likely to be challenged under the much broader U.S.-Mexico free-trade pact.

Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency pointing out that the administration's "action plan" to avoid such problems was far from specific. The plan speaks of "harmonizing" environmental standards between the two countries, saying U.S. health, environmental and safety standards will be maintained "so long as such standards are based on sound science."

Mr. Wirth wonders who would decide whether these standards are based on sound science. I, for one, wonder whether this could become a back-door way for the president's chief of staff, John Sununu, to soften existing U.S. standards because he is ideologically opposed to such regulation.

Congressional Democrats are meeting tomorrow to talk about a party agenda between now and next year's elections. Mr. Gephardt says a middle-income tax cut should take highest priority; he would happily ask voters to choose between it and Mr. Bush's long-denied capital-gains tax cut. He also would like to see a highway bill with a "quick spendout" and a banking bill to encourage more loans, both to stimulate the economy out of recession.

He seems confident that a civil-rights bill will pass next week, although it may be a political liability for the party. "I think that if we put a death penalty on quotas, they [the GOP] will stay it's a quota bill," he says. "That suits their political plan," to attack a civil-rights bill with 30-second commercials like those used successfully by Sen. Jesse Helms in his re-election campaign last year.


But Mr. Gephardt sees both good sense and good politics in his warnings on the free-trade pact. The average Mexican tariff on U.S. goods is 20 percent, he says, against 4 percent on Mexican goods sent here. He does not want more U.S. firms to lay off workers making $12 an hour to open plants south of the border where they pay $1 an hour. He does not want the Japanese to build plants there as an "export platform" to send products made by cheap Mexican labor into this country. Already, such "maquiladora" plants over the border employ more than half a million workers.

Ultimately, says Mr. Gephardt, the issue is what kind of country we want, whether we want to export skilled jobs, to go into the future without a domestic computer or machine-tool industry, to lower American living standards to compete with Mexico. The question is whether trade can be both "free" and fair.