President Clinton had better start paying close attention to the state of trade legislation if he is to attain his key economic objective on Capitol Hill this year. While he is focused on such blue-ribbon domestic issues as health care and welfare reform, the rest of the world is waiting for Congress to ratify the vast liberalization in global commerce negotiated over seven hard years under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
What had seemed a fairly routine ritual under which Congress would find revenues to offset a projected five-year $12 billion loss in tariff receipts is developing into an ideological battle over the linkage of trade with environmental and labor standards. This is one fight Mr. Clinton does not need. It is also one fight he can avoid. If necessary, he should insist on a vote strictly on trade ratification without tying it to the linkage issue.
Linkage appears in the administration bid to extend its "fast-track" power to submit trade agreements to Congress for up-or-down votes without amendments. The president's special trade representative, Mickey Kantor, was a hero to many business groups when he surmounted daunting odds last December to negotiate the world trade pact soon after winning congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But in attaining these victories, Mr. Kantor disappointed some of the environmental and labor groups that consider themselves core Clinton constituencies. And so, to assuage them, he inserted in his new fast-track proposal an assertion that a "principal" U.S. negotiating objective in future trade agreements would be compatibility "with environmental protection, conservation and sustainable development." All 44 of the Senate Republicans have warned they might even prefer to have approval of GATT's Uruguay Round pact delayed rather than accept this language. A business coalition has attacked the "abandonment of economic prosperity goals as the foundation for U.S. trade agreements, in favor of social goals."
Ideally, the administration would combine GATT ratification with a simple extension of the present "fast-track" statute. But with Mr. Kantor locked in to his promises to the labor and environmental lobbies, which have tended to be highly protectionist, Mr. Clinton himself may have to step in to save a trade agreement that promises to add $100 billion to $200 billion yearly to the U.S. economy. If the president wants the kind of job growth he espoused in his campaign, freer world trade -- unhobbled by conditions added by special interest groups -- may be his best bet.