VIETNAM, JORDAN PACTS PROGRESS
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — A U.S.-Vietnam trade pact and a U.S.-Jordan free-trade agreement moved another step closer to congressional approval Thursday, with the House Ways and Means Committee signing off on both tariff-reducing measures.
The agreements recently cleared the Senate Finance Committee and are now poised for votes in the full House and Senate. President Bush has said he’ll sign each measure.
Like any trade pact on lawmakers’ plates these days, discussion of the Jordan and Vietnam agreements before Ways and Means members didn’t escape the knotty issue of including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.
Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, said he had “deep concerns” that the Vietnam agreement, negotiated by the Clinton administration, doesn’t “address the poor labor conditions” in that country.
However, Levin, along with other Democratic lawmakers in Congress, is pressing the Bush administration to include labor standards in a quota-setting, textile bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam, which will likely be negotiated next.
House and Senate Republican leaders are cool on the idea of labor and environmental standards in any trade agreement, although moderates in the party favor some benchmarks. President Bush hasn’t ruled out standards, as long as violations don’t trigger sanctions.
Levin, Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), the top Ways and Means Democrat, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) want Bush trade negotiators to model the Vietnam textile bilateral on labor standards employed in a Cambodia bilateral textile agreement. The Cambodia pact, also negotiated under Clinton, ties improvements in labor standards to increases in textile and apparel quotas.
Levin said he was “disappointed” that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick hasn’t committed to such an approach on labor standards for Vietnam. In a letter Levin received Thursday from Zoellick, the trade negotiator said he was ready “to explore+the appropriateness of negotiating an incentive-based textile and apparel agreement with Vietnam.”
Zoellick also noted that he had “drawn the attention” of Vietnam’s trade minister “to a number of issues relating to human and religious rights in Vietnam.”
The Jordan agreement, negotiated by the Clinton administration, contains labor and environmental standards designed to prevent poor conditions from being used to gain a trade advantage. However, in order to muster GOP support for the pact, the Bush administration and Jordan officials recently exchanged letters saying neither party intends to use trade sanctions to enforce any part of the agreement. The Jordan pact, the first the U.S. has negotiated with an Arab country, is feared by GOP leaders as being precedent-setting on standards in those areas.
Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), said the exchange of letters regarding sanctions “might provide a very useful framework” in current negotiations between House Republicans and Democrats over granting the President trade promotion authority. Disputes over labor and environmental standards continue to put TPA’s future at risk, although House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.,Ill.) said he still wants to bring the issue to a floor vote next week, before Congress takes a one-month break.
TPA is seen as key by the Bush administration to further its expansive trade agenda, but without support from moderate Democrats who want labor and environmental standards, the issue is considered dead in the House.
On a related trade matter, the full House voted 324-91 Thursday to continue commercial ties with Vietnam. The annual vote and the Vietnam trade pact are part of the process of the country resuming trade relations with the U.S. for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Brad Figel, director of governmental affairs and international trade counsel with Nike, said the Vietnam trade pact will drastically lower footwear and apparel tariffs on goods coming into the U.S. from an average of 60 percent. The company now produces these products in Vietnam, mostly for export to Europe, Canada and Australia.
As for including labor standards in a Vietnam bilateral textile agreement, Figel said Nike officials support creating incentives — like increasing quota — for improving labor conditions. However, he said there have to be clear benchmarks for measuring improvements.
“That’s the problem with the Cambodia agreement,” he said.