Debate Revs Up over Fast-Track Trade Measures

Article excerpt

Presidential trade representative Robert Zoellick last week called for the House of Representatives to set a date for a vote on "fast track" legislation.

"The eyes of the world will be on Congress," he said.

But getting what is now called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) won't be easy. The bill would enable the White House to negotiate a global trade-liberalizing deal or a less ambitious trade package and present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any complicating amendments.

"It will be a close vote," says Harald Malmgren, a Washington trade consultant who helped draft the first fast-track bill in 1974.

A survey of House members by CongressDaily shows 178 members publicly undeclared or on the fence on the issue.

It's unlikely the House leadership will call a vote if it has no chance of passage.

The White House would love to have TPA before Nov. 9, when the World Trade Organization opens a ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar. The goal of those talks is to launch another global trade round such as the Kennedy Round that Mr. Malmgren helped negotiate, or the latest, the Uruguay Round.

Earlier rounds didn't have fast track before getting going. Nor is it essential this time, Malmgren says.

Behind the battle over TPA passage is greater uncertainty of the merits of more free trade and international investment, especially with poor nations.

Prior to all postwar trade rounds, there were struggles between groups striving to protect special interests and those seeing great benefits from freer trade for the nation as a whole.

That's true again today.

But now, some analysts maintain that most Americans have been hurt economically from past trade treaties.

For instance, economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot note that trade liberalization in the past two decades has led to a net loss in real income for three quarters of the American labor force lacking college degrees. Those wages, say the Center for Economic and Policy Research economists, have been redistributed to workers with college and advanced degrees.

Liberalized trade has also shifted income from wages generally to business profits. Hourly wages fell as much as 12.6 percent - or as little as 1.6 percent, they maintain.

Wait a minute, says an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Since 1990, as the US has become significantly more open to trade, real average household incomes have grown by at least 10 percent.

Indeed, the poorest fifth of Americans has enjoyed slightly bigger gains than the richest fifth, figures the group co-chaired by Kenneth Duberstein, President Reagan's chief of staff, and Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary under President Clinton. …