FREE-TRADE DRIVE SEEN SINGED BY BLASTS FROM ISOLATIONISTS
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — Industries counting on expanding trade to Latin American markets and other parts of the world may be forced to reassess plans as the national trade debate tips away from recent free-trade policies.
Congressional and presidential candidates are starting to feel the heat of the anti-trade rhetoric from Republican presidential aspirant Patrick J. Buchanan and from the continued threat of Ross Perot’s drive toward securing a spot on 1996 ballots for a third party.
One of those showing signs of pressure is White House hopeful and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R., Kan.), who helped the Clinton administration muscle the North American Free Trade Agreement and the GATT Uruguay Round through Congress. Dole made an about-face in November on trade when, in a floor speech, he said that the U.S. should not enter into any additional free trade pacts until it assesses the impacts of NAFTA and GATT.
Dole’s opposition to extending President Clinton’s fast-track negotiating authority could delay expansion of NAFTA to Chile, which has been waiting in the wings for years and which has received numerous promises from U.S. policy makers that it would be a full partner in U.S. trade.
Observers also feel the administration’s postponement in December of the NAFTA provision that would give Mexican trucks free access to travel anywhere within the four U.S. border states was another reaction to the growing pressures of protectionism.
The unease of free-traders is reflected by Robert Hall, vice president, government affairs counsel for the National Retail Federation, who said the advent of a third party with a protectionist policy is bad news for consumers. If the expansion of free trade policies stalls, the plentiful supply of inexpensive imports could dry up, he said.
“If we build walls around the U.S., it’s only bad news for the country,” said Hall.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), on the forefront of free traders in Congress, points to Dole’s reversal as evidence that Buchanan and Perot are significantly changing the trade debate and worries that no one is refuting them.
“No candidate is articulating a strong, comprehensive, international forward-looking policy,” Kolbe said. “The Buchanan trade message is resonating because no one is responding to it. I think people are afraid to respond.”
In a telephone call from a campaign stop at a shopping mall in Concord, N.H., Buchanan said presidential candidates are avoiding trade because those opposed to expanding trade policies have won the debate.
“No one is saying that they voted for NAFTA and GATT or saying that those agreements turned out to be good deals, because they haven’t. They have taken hundreds of jobs from communities where 100 jobs is 10 percent of the labor force. They won’t engage in the issue, and it’s hard to force debate,” he argued.
“Four years ago [protectionists] were considered an inconsequential force. Now it’s all over. For the next half decade, there won’t be another NAFTA or GATT. We’ve won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. If NAFTA or GATT were to be voted on today, they would be voted down, 2 to 1.”
Trade has not been near the top of the political agenda since the GATT Uruguay Round was passed in 1994. Efforts at smaller trade pacts, such as broadening privileges to Caribbean countries, emerged but never made it to a vote in either the House or Senate. It could return to the national debate this spring when Congress returns to the perennial question of extending China’s trade privileges.
At least one House Republican has approached Dole about his reversal on trade and in a series of meetings with Dole has advised a continuance of free trade philosophy.
Rep. David Dreier (R., Calif.), a staunch free trader, said, “It’s important to recognize that protectionism is very bad, and I think that Dole knows that. We need to insure that we continue to further the ideas of freedom and democracy and trade.”
Former Rep. Bill Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican who helped the Clinton administration win NAFTA and now is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicts the trade debate in this year’s campaigns will be dominated by protectionists and that congressional campaigns will be influenced more than presidential candidates.
“We may again have a Congress that is affected on the right by Perot and on the left by the AFL-CIO, and it may be hard for whoever the president is to deal with Congress on trade,” Frenzel said. “There is a chance that Congress will be more protectionist after 1996.”
Perot’s party, while not intending to mount congressional candidates in the 435 House races and the third of the Senate seats, plans to endorse candidates.
Trade is not on Perot’s party’s platform, yet it will be a litmus test for candidates, said Pat Choate, project director of the Manufacturing Policy Project and a Perot trade adviser.
“Trade is in their hearts and their minds, it doesn’t matter that it’s not in the platform,” he said.
Trade is a nexus for all United We Stand members, said Betty Montgomery, UWS director in South Carolina. She predicts trade policies will be linked to the jobs issue in 1996 campaigns.
“If we’re losing to downsizing or better technology abroad, trade policies are one area we can change in the U.S.,” she said. “Trade is where the group comes together.”
As more apparel plants are forced shut, trade will become more of a campaign issue, predicts Seth Bodner, executive director of the National Sportswear and Knitwear Association.
“As more people are laid off, more politicians will have to talk trade in a serious way,” Bodner said. “They can’t run around saying free trade is great when people are losing their jobs. Candidates will be asked what they will do about U.S. trade policies. The Perot people won’t let them get away without commenting on it.”
Protectionist policies likely will resonate louder in some parts of the country than in others. The South and the Rust Belt are two regions that have suffered job losses and are increasingly opposing trade pacts. On the other hand, some states — such as Arizona, Texas and California — are increasingly backing free-trade policies because NAFTA has benefited their economies.
Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.), the only member of his state’s delegation to vote for NAFTA, was criticized roundly in his 1994 reelection campaign for that. He stops short of denouncing his vote as a mistake but acknowledges it has not produced all the jobs promised. He now says he cast his NAFTA vote with the White House in the hopes of securing a longer quota phaseout of the Multi-Fiber Agreement in the GATT Uruguay Round. That effort failed, however, and the 10-year phaseout was implemented.
Those advocating more closed trade policies are counting on out-of-work Americans to take trade into account when they vote in 1996.
“If apparel workers know exactly what has happened to their jobs, they will vote their pocketbook,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Ohio), who worked to defeat NAFTA and GATT. “The jobs and trade debate already have been resonating. After the primaries when the number of candidates narrows, that’s when it will pick up steam.”
Organized labor has been laying the groundwork for 1996 campaign strategy almost since ballots were counted in 1994, said Joe Alvarez, political director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. After passage of NAFTA and GATT, unions “can’t afford not to get involved,” Alvarez said.