Politics and Trade

December 02, 1990

Marylanders have a right to ask why their two U.S. senators signed onto a resolution that, if enacted, would effectively kill the most sweeping world trade agreement in history. Whether such an agreement can be hammered out in Brussels this week as the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade enters its final stage is increasingly doubtful. But one thing is not doubtful: Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes are doing nothing to help the process. They are hurting it.

In all of the 107 countries that belong to GATT there are politicians a-plenty opposed to more open commerce. Parochial attitudes die hard, especially when powerful interests collude to block progress. The unholy alliance between the textile lobby and sugar growers in this country is one example. Another is the opposition of the telecommunications industry to a services pact the United States has championed from the start. Still another is the transformation of organized labor from a force for internationalism into a protectionist bastion. And when the AFL-CIO says jump, Senators Mikulski and Sarbanes leap.

The two Marylanders were among 37 senators who co-sponsored a resolution that would derail the so-called "fast-track" arrangement for dealing with comprehensive trade pacts. Fast-track not only speeds congressional consideration of such agreements; it makes it realistically possible for them to be approved. The alternative is to have them picked apart, piece by piece.

Senator Mikulski's office has explained her reasons for co-sponsoring the resolution against fast-track. Her first point is that a new and broader GATT agreement could cost some Marylanders their jobs. Of course it could. It could also create a lot more jobs. Implicit in any reciprocal trade agreement is a trade-off of costs and benefits.

Senator Mikulski's second point is that the proposed GATT agreement is so sweeping it would commit Congress to vast changes. Of course it would. That's the beauty of it. Past agreements have made international trade the fastest-growing part of the global economy.

Senator Mikulski's third point is that the fast-track procedure undercuts Congress' constitutional obligation to pass laws and approve agreements. She insists on her right to vote against any part of a GATT pact she opposes. Of course, the good senator is correct in the abstract. But it is Congress that has discovered the only way it can pass any meaningful trade agreement is to delegate negotiating functions to the executive branch, which then acts as a buffer and heat-taker to protect elected politicians.

Since our two senators presumably want to be re-elected, they would be wise to alter their stand on fast-track. Or were they just posturing for a proposal they know will never be enacted?

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