FREE-TRADE FANS’ FOES GEAR FOR ACTION
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — Advocates and opponents of trade liberalization are using the legislative lull to build support for their positions in anticipation of Congressional action.
Since the House in March passed a bill to liberalize trade with qualifying sub-Saharan Africa countries, there has been no trade activity. The African measure is pending before the Senate, with no deadline; so are a plan to broaden trade benefits to the Caribbean and smaller trade measures pertaining to shipbuilding and duty-free benefits given to developing countries.
Even though there’s no action on trade at the moment, the public pronouncements made by opponents and advocates indicate trade issues have not been forgotten. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), who recently extolled the advantages of free trade in remarks to an Economic Strategy Institute (ESI) conference, said it is necessary to speak out on the issue.
“It’s important that proponents of free trade know that the deck is stacked against them right now on Capitol Hill,” Kolbe said, making declarations in favor of free trade “absolutely essential.”
“We won’t win until the public understands what free trade means to them,” he said.
Aware of the importance of converting the public to a free-trade position, The Business Roundtable, a coalition of about 200 Fortune 500 firms heavily dependent on world markets, is mounting a multimillion-dollar, three-year effort in early summer in 12 Congressional districts. Two of the still undisclosed targeted areas are textile-dependent districts in North Carolina, and the Roundtable aims to educate them about the benefits of trade liberalization, an organization spokeswoman said. Which districts are targeted are expected to be announced this month, she said.
Meetings with local Congressional representatives and business leaders, media campaigns and press conferences are planned to build public support for trade liberalization and to convince the members of the virtues of freer trade policies, the Roundtable spokeswoman said.
“We intend to paint a picture of the interdependence of businesses in the trade arena,” the spokeswoman said. For example, workers at small firms may not be aware that their products are a component in exported items, she said.
Two dozen Congressional districts will be added to the campaign during the second and third years to build a free-trade majority in the House. The effort to win up to three dozen members to the side of free trade could make the difference on the next fast-track vote, the Roundtable spokeswoman said.
President Clinton’s fast-track request failed to muster a majority in the House last November, and since then it has not been revived, in part because it still lacks support.
Also on the side of advancing trade liberalization are Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate trade subcommittee, and Sen. Bob Kerrey (D., Neb.), who have launched a bipartisan campaign to lower trade barriers and revive the fight for fast-track authority. Under fast track, Congress only can approve or defeat trade agreements, but not amend them, and this is considered a necessary authority for the administration in negotiations with trading partners.
Grassley and Kerrey have initiated their trade push because “there is no sense of urgency in the administration or by Congress for greater trade liberalization,” they said in a joint statement.
The two plan to mount a grass-roots public relations campaign with the top priority of liberalizing agricultural trade policies. However, their effort is broad, an aide said, noting Grassley never misses a chance to complain publicly about the lack of fast-track negotiating authority.
Sen. William Roth Jr. (R., Del.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is on their side. He has outlined his dream for a “new American trade agenda” that begins with building a public consensus on trade liberalization. Factors within Roth’s free-trade scheme include tax reform, changes to the trade adjustment assistance program for workers displaced by trade and an emphasis on education to prepare new generations for global competition.
Roth, in a speech to the ESI conference, reiterated the need to build public support. “We must rebuild the domestic political consensus in support of trade….We must reconnect our trade policy with Main Street America, with the farm and the factory,” he said. To do that, Roth said trade advocates should be honest with the public about the benefits and costs of new initiatives.
“There is no value in overselling trade agreements,” he said, a reference to the administration’s overblown predictions that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create 20 million U.S. jobs.
Roth said negotiators could not dodge the legitimate concerns of many about trade and environment standards, food safety and wages.
Advocating more trade restrictions are House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who tout a “new internationalism” that moves labor and environmental standards to the top of trade negotiating priorities.
Gephardt told the ESI conference that while he’s not trying to impose U.S. labor and environmental standards on other parts of the world, he wants to require U.S. trading partners to enforce their laws.
Gephardt also wants the trade adjustment assistance program to be reauthorized.
In addition, he urges action on a bill that would prohibit import of products made with child labor.
Sweeney agrees with Gephardt and criticizes U.S. trade policy for benefiting corporations and not workers.
“The challenge is no longer how to forge the global market, but how to put sensible boundaries around the market that already exists,” Sweeney said.
“Our response is the beginnings of a new internationalism, a demand for effective governance that will secure basic worker rights, environmental and consumer protections, sensible antitrust and financial regulations.”