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
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 judged
otherwise can be defended by threat of retaliation. …