Fritz Blitz on Trade

September 30, 1994

Sen. Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings bided his time, let the Clinton administration dither away precious weeks on the legislative calendar, then launched a delaying attack on the pending global trading bill this week just as his colleagues were chafing to go home for elections. It is not that the White House was not forewarned. Mr. Hollings is not only a senator from South Carolina but the senator from the textile industry, a protectionist dedicated to the preservation of low-cost jobs even if high-paying export jobs have to be sacrificed in the process.

You can say this for Mr. Hollings: He is that rare politician who declares himself an admirer of the ultra-protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff that deepened the Great Depression of the Thirties. You can also say this for Mr. Hollings: He may have bumbled across the one parliamentary gimmick that can assure final passage this year of the most important trade-opening pact in world history.

Here's why: As the trade legislation neared its showdown, Republican presidential hopefuls Bob Dole and Phil Gramm suddenly turned obstructionist even though the 123-nation accord was initiated during the Reagan-Bush era. They did so not because they had converted to protectionism but because, with the health care scalp on their wall, they wanted to kill every remaining part of President Clinton's legislative agenda. Thanks or no thanks to the Hollings maneuver, by which he exercised a committee chairman's prerogative to delay action for 45 days, the Senate may have to be called into special session to act on the trade bill after the Nov. 8 election.

Actually, that might be helpful. Once the elections are over, and there is no immediate political advantage to be gained in sabotaging the administration, Senators Dole and Gramm might find it useful to return to the free-trade fold.

Why so? Because under current "fast track" rules, Congress has to vote the trade pact up or down without amendment. Most parliamentary experts believe these rules will expire with the present Congress and if the measure is revived next year it would be fair game for crippling amendments. So Senators Dole and Gramm, after the election, should have as much interest as the White House in getting action this year instead of next.

No doubt about it, the Fritz blitz is a bonanza for the Republicans. No longer can the Democrats blame the gridlock in Congress solely on the GOP. It is a southern Democrat, supposedly a Clinton ally, who is trying to block the one remaining high-priority on the president's agenda. Mr. Hollings must not prevail. The GATT measure, like last year's North American Free Trade Agreement, can be a symbol to the world that there is indeed a bipartisan free-trade majority in Congress -- one that can be counted upon to ratify trade agreements negotiated by this or any other president.

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