Free Trade Pact Is Shaky Tough US Demands Dim Trade Prospects across Borders

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AS American and Mexican negotiators begin formulating "side agreements" to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the weight of political opinion in Washington is quite pessimistic about the agreement's chances for congressional approval.

That sentiment on NAFTA in the House of Representatives is currently at least 2 to 1 against shows that the Clinton administration's renewed support for free trade is only the initial down payment on a very expensive political tab. Will President Clinton pay the price?

Roughly three-fourths of newly elected members of the House and Senate explicitly opposed NAFTA in their campaigns. In a series of surprisingly candid interviews, United States Trade Representative Mickey Kantorconcedes that NAFTA is in trouble politically. But he also asserts that he can satisfy the objections of members of Congress.

Mr. Kantor's optimism and seeming willingness to commit publicly to deliver on innumerable promises may be part of the larger problem facing NAFTA.

When former Trade Representative Carla Hills began the long and difficult NAFTA process, one of the first rules she established was that the negotiations would occur in private. She correctly acknowledged that the talks could not succeed if the particulars of the US agenda were discussed with members of Congress and the press before they were presented to the Mexican and Canadian representatives at the bargaining table.

Kantor, on the other hand, seems happy to discuss details of the three-sided agreements in appearances before Congress and with the press, apparently as part of a larger strategy to manage the process through the media. In general, he has conducted one of the most frank and open discussions of US-Mexico relations given by an American official in many years. But his candor troubles always-reticent Mexican government officials and NAFTA supporters, who rightly wonder what Kantor really has in mind if he is so willing to discuss the US shopping list for the side agreements.

Ms. Hills was charged with negotiating an agreement, which would then be sold to Congress by President Bush.

Kantor's assignment is much broader and arguably far more difficult, if not impossible. In practical terms, he must hold difficult talks with Mexico and Canada while conducting detailed negotiations with members of Congress, environmental groups, labor organizations, and hundreds of state and local entities.

The scale of the task facing former lawyer/lobbyist Kantor is illustrated by his calls for basic changes in Mexican law and legal procedures. A number of members of Congress have demanded major alterations in Mexican legal practices in order to ensure that both NAFTA and side agreement provisions are enforceable.

Significantly, Kantor has already backed away from an earlier pledge to give the trilateral commissions envisioned in the trade agreement supra-national authority to resolve disputes and enforce rules. He apparently understands that the issue of how Mexico's legal system works (or fails to work) inevitably leads to political questions that cannot be answered within the narrow confines of NAFTA.

But without the fundamental changes that House Leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, other members of Congress, and even Kantor himself have called for, there can be no effective enforcement of any NAFTA provisions that require specific action on the Mexican side of the border. …