GEPHARDT TIES ECOLOGY AND LABOR TO FAST TRACK
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) threw a major wrench Wednesday into the Clinton administration’s efforts to secure an extension of fast-track negotiating authority when he said he would insist that labor and environmental protections be part of any future trade pacts.
In a speech to the Economic Strategy Institute, Gephardt also said that any debate about extending fast-track authority — a necessary tool for the negotiation of trade agreements — should include a debate about the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he strongly opposed.
“The only thing that we know that the administration wants to use fast track for is to expand the NAFTA. And for that reason, a debate about how well NAFTA has worked is entirely appropriate,” Gephardt said.
While his opposition to extending fast track without labor and environment was not unexpected, it clearly illustrates the vast gulf between the administration and some congressional Democrats on U.S. trade policy. Democratic advocates of granting Clinton fast-track authority, which permits him to negotiate trade pacts free from fear of congressional changes, have called Gephardt’s opposition formidable.
Retired Democratic Rep. Sam Gibbons, who led the House Trade Subcommittee for decades, said that Gephardt’s position makes it “extremely difficult for the administration to deal with the Democratic organization in Congress.” He added that Gephardt’s anticipated run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 is influencing his behavior.
“He feels he must have the support of the AFL-CIO,” Gibbons said. “He cannot in good conscience lead a position that his principle supporters would object to. I don’t accuse him of any mischief but if he’s running for president, he has to have the support of organized labor.”
Gibbons is currently heading up a bipartisan coalition to advance a fast-track extension on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), a free trade advocate who worked with the Clinton administration in securing passage of NAFTA, said he would “resist” Gephardt’s efforts to tie a fast-track extension with NAFTA.
“He’s trying to tie fast track to Mexico to kill it,” Kolbe said. “Fast track has to do with a host of other things including the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and ASEAN and agriculture.”
On linking a fast-track extension to NAFTA, Gephardt said that “we shouldn’t blindly extend an agreement that isn’t working… I believe that NAFTA … has damaged the standard of living, health and safety of the Mexican people.”
Gephardt said that labor rights and environmental protections are trade issues and violations of negotiated standards should be punishable by trade sanctions. He also advocated creation of a comprehensive trade adjustment assistance program for any future trade expansion efforts.
President Clinton has said he plans to seek a fast-track extension this year but so far has declined to voice any specifics. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has made regular visits to meet with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill in an attempt to convince them of the value of fast track and expanded free trade agreements. She also has been meeting with business officials interested in advancing free trade pacts. No fast-track plans have come out of the administration, however, and many on Capitol Hill worry that time is being wasted.
Kolbe predicted that the administration was waiting to present fast track until after a deal is struck with Republicans on a balanced budget. “The administration has to get off the dime on fast track,” Kolbe said.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 226 House members sent President Clinton a letter Wednesday urging that because of safety concerns he not lift current restrictions to U.S. highway access for Mexican trucks.
The Clinton administration is weighing a decision to allow Mexican trucks to travel the four border states. NAFTA mandates that trucks from all three North American countries have free access to the continent by 2000.
If Clinton does lift the restrictions, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D., Minn.), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that legislation would be introduced to prevent Mexican trucks from traveling beyond the current limit of 20 miles from the border.
A recently released government report revealed that in 1996 about 45 percent of trucks traveling from Mexico to the U.S. were placed out of service for serious safety violations such as substandard tires or for being loaded unsafely, Oberstar said at a press conference.