The giant trade deal that just passed Congress is almost certainly the last of its kind. Like a flame burning brightly just before it dies, a huge majority supported the eighth revision of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But not again.
What was missing in the GATT bill is basic to the reason why. It did not contain a renewal of fast-track authority, without which the president cannot negotiate abroad again.
Absent a binding promise from Congress that it won't amend what the executive branch agrees to with other nations, they won't bargain with us.
Stripping fast-track authority from GATT was the price of passage. Now it must be asked for separately if President Bill Clinton wants to talk with Latin America or Asia about concrete steps to create regional trade alliances. Even Chile's request to join NAFTA is doomed without fast-track.
Clinton is likely to ask for it, and not get it - or at least not without Congress so limiting his authority that fast-track may be virtually useless. An increasingly protectionist impulse in both parties is the reason.
Indeed, if George Bush had been president. GATT might have been defeated. Fewer Democrats would have voted for it, convinced as many are becoming that trade costs jobs - and votes. Clinton delivered Democrats for GATT that no Republican could. A GOP president would have had to rely mainly on his own party.
Even today many Republicans see little reason to antagonize labor on trade. Workers whose allegiance to Democrats is fraying may be induced to vote Republican if treated right.
Labor's attitude on trade is not new, of course. But as long as the total number of jobs regularly increased, it wasn't a central preoccupation. Now that jobs are being lost - especially manufacturing jobs - anything that appears to threaten them further is anathema.
As well, in the post Cold War world, many Republicans are developing isolationist tendencies of their own. They are hostile to international bodies in general, from the UN to the new World Trade Organization. Indeed, U.S. membership in the WTO without a veto caused some Republicans to oppose GATT.
Labor and Republican isolationist sentiment aren't the only reason Clinton is in trouble over fast track.
Environmentalists have also opted out of the free trade consensus. They are convinced free trade threatens the sanctity of U.S. environmental laws, which theoretically can be attacked as a restraint of trade.
In fact, a close reading of the agreement refutes this. Laws based on scientific principles are untouchable, and those …