FREE TRADERS BRACE FOR ELECTION DAY
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — Advocates of free trade are looking to Tuesday’s elections with a touch of uneasiness.
Even Republicans expect that the anticipated gains for their party in Congress will make it more difficult for the administration to pursue expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement in Latin America as well as other trade quests.
An extension of fast-track negotiating authority, postponed until 1995, as well as a broadening of trade benefits to the Caribbean, could be jeopardized as Republicans hesitate to give President Clinton any victories he can call his own, said Auggie Tantillo, trade consultant with Kinghorn & Associates, here. Tantillo was with the Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for textiles and apparel and chairman of the government’s interagency Committee for Implementation of Textile Agreements with the Bush administration.
Under fast track, Congress can only approve or reject trade agreements. It cannot amend them. This kind of authority for the administration is seen as a virtual necessity to get trade partners to the negotiating table. This authority was used for both NAFTA and the still-pending consideration of the GATT implementing legislation.
“We will see an extremely earnest scrutiny of fast track with a tendency toward denying it. The biggest issue in jeopardy in terms of this election is fast track,” Tantillo predicted in a telephone interview. The trade scenario could be worse for Clinton if the Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, Tantillo said.
If Sen. Robert Dole (R., Kan.) becomes majority leader, fast track would be denied, because of presidential elections in 1996 and, Tantillo added, “because there is a true skepticism about Clinton’s willingness to use it in a reliable fashion.”
Tantillo also sees efforts to expand NAFTA-like benefits to the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries as one of the first casualties of the fast-track debate. While the administration has vowed to push it next year, there is some doubt about the White House’s convictions. Also, if Clinton is not given fast-track authority, it would make it less appealing to Caribbean countries to sit at the negotiating table with the knowledge that Congress could alter any pact agreed upon.
“It would then be a matter of how badly the Caribbean countries want parity,” Tantillo said.
Clinton frustrated and angered Congressional free traders in the NAFTA side accords that broadened the treaty to include labor and environmental standards, and in the GATT-implementing bill by including extraneous provisions that included a change in the apparel rule of origin.
Also, the administration’s proposal for a fast-track extension that set labor and environmental standards for future agreements be included in the GATT bill irked members of the Senate, who ultimately prevailed in persuading the administration to drop it and try again next year.
Fears for free trade are not solely based on changes in the Senate. Former Minnesota Republican representative Bill Frenzel, a House member from 1971 until 1991 who aided the Clinton administration in winning votes for NAFTA last year, said he had qualms about the trade philosophies of new Republican House members.
“My judgment is when you get a lot of Republicans up there, you’ll ultimately get more free trade, but some of the new House members may come in encumbered with nervousness from the Perot organizations that supported them. Some of the Perot trade isolationism will rub off on them,” said Frenzel, now a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution, in a telephone interview.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), who rounded up Republican votes for NAFTA last year and a GATT procedural vote several weeks ago, also worries that the new generation of Republicans will turn their backs on what has traditionally been a Republican franchise.
“I’m very concerned about the trends I see in the Republican Party,” Kolbe said. “My greatest fear is that the caucus will return to the pre-World War II protectionism.”
In addition to Perot’s influence, Kolbe also sees a threat to the free-trade agenda in the self-imposed term limits some Republicans have campaigned on.
“When they know they will just be in Congress for six years, they aren’t statesmen,” Kolbe said. “They could care less about trade with Indonesia. There is a loss of international outlook and a loss of long-term thinking.”
To convince Congress to grant him fast track, the President will have to narrow his negotiating goals, Frenzel said. “If he asks for broad authority for another GATT round, he’ll have to buy it from Congress with a lot of wheeling and dealing.
“He’ll have to give a few principal players things he may not want to. He really missed a chance to include fast track in GATT this year.”
Frenzel also predicts it will take a Presidential promise that trade negotiations won’t be used to advance the agendas of organized labor and environmentalists for Congress to approve fast track. Just as Clinton decisively separated human rights from the debate over China’s trade privileges, he’ll have to do the same with fast track, Frenzel said.
Tantillo is more pessimistic and says the growing awareness of the vast power fast track grants the president will make it more difficult for Clinton next year.
“In the Senate, there is tremendous resentment over fast track. There are genuine substantive concerns mixed with political concerns,” Tantillo said.
A House Democratic staffer close to the trade debate further forecasts it will be difficult to address fast track and CBI parity early in the 104th Congress because of the number of new members who won’t be knowledgeable about trade issues and will need more time to get up to speed on the issues.
— Fairchild News Service