Six of the eight Marylanders in the House of Representatives are expected to vote this morning to give President Bush the authority he needs to negotiate trade agreements with Mexico and other countries that cannot be picked apart through subsequent congressional action. This is a pretty good ratio considering the power of organized labor, now the most protectionist force in America.
Only Republican Helen Delich Bentley, xenophobic as always on trade, and Democrat Kweisi Mfume seem determined to oppose the president. They are likely to be outnumbered, fortunately, by Democrats Beverly Byron, Benjamin Cardin, Steny Hoyer and Tom McMillen and Republicans Wayne Gilchrest and Constance Morella.
It is too bad, but unsurprising, that our two Democratic senators, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, will oppose the so-called fast-track authority. Mr. Sarbanes feels Congress is ceding too much to the White House on bilateral agreements.
What is at stake is not only the credibility of the United States in trade negotiations but the nation's leadership role in the fast-changing global economy. Two former secretaries of state, Republican Henry Kissinger and Democrat Cyrus Vance, have labeled Mr. Bush's free-trade overture to Mexico "the most constructive measure the United States would have undertaken in our hemisphere in this century." If it is stymied, they warn, it will be "a grievous blow to democracy and economic reform in the hemisphere."
Renewal of the president's "fast-track authority" to negotiate trade agreements that must be voted up or down, without change, by the Congress also is vital in negotiations under the 107-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). A vote to deny the president this authority would effectively kill chances to extend liberal trading rules to agriculture, intellectual property, financial services and other areas vital to U.S. interests.
In recent weeks, prospects for the president's trade initiative have brightened primarily because House majority leader Richard Gephardt has abandoned his protectionist stance and has given the White House his conditional support. His turnabout came after an exchange of letters with Mr. Bush that will produce a non-binding resolution on jobs and environment and an undertaking for close consultation with the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
We would be happier if all Maryland lawmakers would support fast-track authority, given this state's historic commitment to world commerce. But the 6-2 vote of approval expected in the House delegation is laudable, especially on the part of Democrats defying organized labor's pressure.