Setback for economic growth Fast track: Without negotiating authority, president will not protect U.S. trade interests.

November 11, 1997

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S failure to convince Congress to give him fast track negotiating authority reverses the movement toward free world trade that has helped this country to prosper for the past half-century. The momentum still exists elsewhere, but for now the U.S. is the dragging anchor, not the propeller.

Mr. Clinton was right to call off the vote in the House rather than be repudiated there, but the difference is not great. He failed to persuade most Democratic representatives to support him where most Republican representatives do. His chances next year, because of congressional elections, are less.

As a result, negotiations will not go forward for expanding markets for U.S. products in Asia and Latin America, opening up foreign government procurement to U.S. firms, protecting markets for U.S. farmers or strengthening protections for U.S. patents and copyrights. That the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) cannot be enlarged to include Chile in the coming year -- on which the battle rhetorically was fought -- is minor by comparison.

This dispute is about process. For Congress to mark up a trade agreement as though it was domestic legislation is fantasy. In reality, Congress would have rejected the agreement and sent it back to Square One for renegotiation without admitting it. The president would bring the weakest of hands to the table: Other countries will know he cannot deliver.

That's why Congress in 1974 empowered President Ford to negotiate trade agreements, to be enacted or rejected but not amended by Congress, and why Congress renewed this "fast track" authority five times.

But not a sixth, because the AFL-CIO has fixated on jobs #F seemingly lost to Mexico through the 1993 NAFTA, without counting the U.S. jobs created.

Last week's off-year elections probably did in fast track. Republicans outspent Democrats everywhere. The lesson drawn by many Democratic representatives worried about re-election was that AFL-CIO support is indispensable and not to be crossed.

Losers of jobs lost know who they are. Those who fail to gain a job that was not created will never know. In all probability, more U.S. workers lost than gained from the defeat of fast track, but they will never be counted. The alternative is not slow track but no track.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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