A DAY of reckoning is fast approaching for President Bush's proposed free trade agreement with Mexico. Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to give the president a free hand in negotiating a Mexican trade pact. That pact would be the centerpiece of a North American free trade system that would also include Canada and that could, by the next century, embrace the entire Western Hemisphere.
The countdown to the congressional vote has locked Washington policy-makers in a contentious debate, but momentum seems to be building in support of the president. That is all to the good, because to deny his request for an extra two years of "fast track" negotiating authority would be both shortsighted and detrimental to the U.S. economy.
At stake is not just the Mexican trade pact, but ongoing international talks in Geneva to expand the so-called General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which affects markets all over the world.
The emerging consensus among House and Senate members is to grant Bush's request for "fast track" as long as he sticks to his pledges to assist displaced U.S. workers and to deal with environmental issues. This was Bush's political compromise to placate stiff opposition to the pact from labor and environmental interests, which fear that U.S. companies would go south of the border for cheaper wages and looser pollution controls.
To some extent that opposition is understandable. Opening up the United States to unfettered competition is likely to cause pain and realignment. But in the long run that pain will be more than offset by gains in U.S. exports and the new jobs that will come as a result.
Unfortunately, some opponents of free trade grossly overstate their case, making it sound as if free trade with Mexico would unleash an economic cataclysm.
In fact, as most economists could calmly explain if the naysayers would listen, a free trade pact in North America will bring a semblance of order to an emerging world financial system that is going to evolve -- indeed, is already evolving -- whether our modern-day Luddites like it or not. Better that the United States and its two biggest trading partners get ahead of the curve.
The president got a big boost last week when House and Senate trade committees voted overwhelmingly to support fast track. Those are the members of Congress who know the most about international trade and can see what's coming in the 21st century. Their colleagues should follow their lead and vote to extend fast-track authorization.