IT was supposed to be so easy. Lawmakers, plump from their yams
and stuffing, would return to work after Thanksgiving for one final
housecleaning chore: to ratify a 124-nation pact to free up world
trade. No fuss. No problems.
Instead, in the newly reconstituted world of Washington, the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has become the first
big test of power in the nation's capital - how much President
Clinton has left and how much the soon-to-be GOP majority in
Congress will hold.
Flush with their vaunted new status, some big-name Republicans
are now either balking at the treaty or seeking to wring
concessions from a wounded White House. On the outcome rides not
only political prestige but millions of jobs and the shape of
21st-century trade practices between the United States and much of
the rest of the world.
Mindful of the stakes, international supporters warn that
failure to pass the treaty will erode world economic growth and US
"Everything is riding on the US," Peter Sutherland, GATT's
director general, told the Monitor.
GATT's scheduled transformation in January into the new World
Trade Organization (WTO), the agency set up to oversee the pact,
hinges on votes in the House of Representatives Nov. 29, and in the
Senate Dec. 1.
Mr. Sutherland calculates that about one fourth of all GATT
members have already signed onto the WTO. But rejection or
postponement by the US, the world's biggest economy, will derail
A small army of environmentalists, workers-rights advocates, and
partisan politicians continue to fight hard against GATT. The
latest GOP attack has come from Senate majority leader-to-be Robert
Dole (R) of Kansas, who threatens to scuttle the trade deal if the
White House refuses to resurrect a capital-gains tax. Senator Dole
and the White House may agree to a plan that would allow the US to
withdraw from WTO if it improperly rules three times against the
Mr. Sutherland predicts staggering costs if the pact is not
approved: The first 10 years of the WTO's existence are slated to
boost world income by $510 billion - with more than $120 billion
for the US and $160 billion for the European Union, the US's
largest trading partner.
The White House promises big gains, given findings of the US
Labor and Commerce Departments that $1 billion in exports generates
20,000 jobs. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have pointed
to exports as the key to the rebound from recession and
Free trade has historically transcended party lines in the US.
Ironically, this year's showdown includes protectionists from both
parties who worry that unregulated, low-cost labor abroad will
flood the US with cheap products and rob Americans of jobs. …