It's fast track or no trade deals Authority needed: American workers and business need a president who can negotiate with other nations.

November 06, 1997

CONGRESS would grievously harm American workers, farmers, consumers, businesses and investors if it deprived President Clinton of the power to negotiate in trade arenas that Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton had used and needed. It would be sending him, or any successor, out to defend American interests with both hands tied behind his back.

That is what the struggle to extend "fast track" negotiating authority is about. It is not about giving the president a necessary tool, but taking one away.

Trade deals are treated constitutionally not as treaties to be decided by the Senate, but as revenue legislation that must originate in the House. As domestic legislation, it may be amended as well as approved or rejected. The catch is that if an agreement running hundreds of pages has been negotiated by many countries, unilateral amendment by Congress would be a fantasy. Any change by Congress would in reality send years of complex negotiations back to Square One.

In an increasingly interdependent world, this just won't work. The U.S. would get left out of trade agreements. The president would be unable to defend American interests that were under attack or exploit opportunities to advance them.

That's why Congress, starting in 1974, wisely created "fast track" authority under which the president is empowered to negotiate a trade deal that Congress may approve or reject but not rewrite. To abandon that authority now, when it has become part of the way the world works, makes no sense. That's why it is essential to the interests of all Americans that Congress extend this authority tomorrow.

If it were left to the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress, this would happen. They may believe that the wrong party holds the presidency but they know the president needs this power.

Fast track won a key procedural vote rather handily in the Senate on Tuesday. The trouble is among Democrats in the House, because the AFL-CIO unwisely decided to shoot down fast track as its priority in national politics, and many Democrats crave AFL-CIO support at election time.

Big labor opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and lost. This struggle is falsely billed as a replay of that one, and as a chance to stop NAFTA's expansion through the addition of Chile. That wrongly minimizes the issue.

The argument is made that labor and environmental concerns were not sufficiently protected with Mexico. But ending fast track would not advance them.

Future negotiations to open foreign markets and government procurement to U.S. firms and farmers, and to protect American patents and copyrights, are crucial to American workers and investors. They would require fast track. The AFL-CIO is entitled to be misguided on this issue. Members of Congress, however, are accountable for their own best judgments and their votes. They must not send the president naked into the trade jungle. He cannot protect American workers and investors that way.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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