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
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
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. …