Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched what is expected to be a wide-ranging push by business for a free-trade agenda in the 105th Congress.
Resolutions passed last week by the Chamber’s board of directors ask President Clinton to seek Congressional approval of fast-track negotiating authority without ties to labor or environmental standards; permanent extension of China’s trade benefits, and a more public debate on the merits of free trade.
“Absent U.S. engagement and leadership in negotiating market-opening agreements in the Western Hemisphere, American companies are at a real risk of being denied access to trade and investment advantages that are instead being granted to non-U.S. companies,” the Chamber’s statement said. “The U.S. cannot afford to continue to sit on the sidelines as hemispheric trade integration proceeds. It must retake the lead in pursuing agreements throughout the Americas.”
The Chamber urged Congress to approve fast-track authority within 90 days after the 1997 session convenes.
Fast-track authority enables the President to negotiate trade agreements without fear changes will be made by Congress, which is permitted only to approve or disapprove the agreements. Negotiations between the U.S. and Chile have stalled because the authority expired during the last Congress. An attempt to approve a fast-track agreement failed earlier this year when Democrats would not accede to demands by House Republicans that labor and environmental provisions be omitted from trade pacts.
Whenever the administration decides to pursue an extension of fast-track, however, it will likely face another push from Democrats on Capitol Hill to include such provisions. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.), in a Monday press conference after his election to the leadership post by fellow Democrats, said that the North American Free Trade Agreement should not be extended to Chile because it “is not good enough. I don’t think we should just extend fast track to other countries. We can do better than NAFTA. We should not have taken NAFTA as it is.”
Gephardt opposed the Clinton administration on NAFTA when it was before the House three years ago on the grounds that it did not include enough protections for labor standards and the environment.
Meanwhile, Eugene Milosh, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, is joining the free-trade onslaught.
“There’s a feeling that there should be a push,” he said, noting AAEI is preparing position papers on fast-track authority, China’s most-favored-nation trade status, Caribbean parity — giving that region benefits equal to those enjoyed by Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement — and an end to the boycott of Cuba. These papers will be delivered to the administration when new cabinet members are selected.
Clinton is expected to choose a new Commerce secretary and must find a new Labor secretary and appoint a permanent U.S. Trade Representative. These appointments aren’t expected until later this year or early in 1997.
“These people will be extremely important as to whether they will pick up the ball and run with these trade issues,” Milosh said.
The National Retail Federation is setting its 1997 agenda, and trade, as always, is likely to be near the top. Member companies are being consulted to determine their legislative priorities.
“We’d like to see trade high on the Congressional agenda,” said Robert Hall, vice president and international trade counsel. Retailers probably will continue to advocate a name change for MFN, permanent trade benefits for China and fast-track extension so expansion of NAFTA can be pursued.
“It’s a long road ahead of us to get permanent MFN,” Hall said. “The first small step would be a name change, then we need to come up with a process so we can get a multiyear extension, with safeguards if needed. U.S.-China relations would be improved if we are able to build a long-lasting relationship.”
Those who want to change the MFN label point out it’s a misnomer since such trading benefits, with their lower tariffs, are granted to almost all the U.S.’s trading partners.
Julia Hughes, vice president of international and government affairs for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, agreed there would be a major push next year for consideration of free-trade issues.
“We’re hoping the Singapore ministerial will be a turning point for free-trade issues next year,” Hughes said. USAITA intends to lobby for a Congressional review of procedures at the Committee for Implementation of Textile Agreements, and permanent trade privileges for China, Hughes said.
Others planning to push for trade expansion include the Business Roundtable, made up of the chief executive officers of 200 major corporations, and the U.S.-China Business Council, whose membership includes firms with investments and trade relations in China.
The American Apparel Manufacturers Association and Caribbean embassies are focusing on the quest for Caribbean parity. Many AAMA members have long-established production ties with the Caribbean. Jamaican Ambassador Richard Bernal wrote Clinton a congratulatory letter on his reelection and said he hoped an expansion of trade benefits to the Caribbean would be addressed next year.
“Trade is the highest priority for the Business Roundtable,” said a spokeswoman for the group. The Roundtable is considering sending a letter to Clinton urging quick approval of fast-track authority, she said. Extended trade privileges for China also is on the Roundtable’s agenda.

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