Sell It or Smell It

The mounting battle over free trade proves that closed minds and open markets will never really mix.

These days, it’s almost impossible to get anyone inside the Beltway to say something nasty about free trade -- at least in public.

In the past two weeks, even anti-trade environmentalists and their protectionist union cohorts have paid grudging lip service to the global marketplace. But if everyone agrees, why does a proposal to give the president "fast track" authority in trade negotiations have the Senate Finance Committee tied up for days at a time? Why is the hearing room so full of reporters and staffers that latecomers have to watch the proceedings on a tiny television in a room across the hall? Most important, why does the whole spectacle have Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) making thinly-veiled references to tits n’ ass? Because the donnybrook surrounding the trade debate shows that intractable domestic battles about subsidies, labor policies, and environmental standards are slowly but surely bleeding over into international affairs.

At the center of the political maelstrom is a bill proposed by Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) It would grant the president the authority to negotiate international trade agreements and present them to the Senate for a yes or no vote. In granting "trade promotion authority," formerly known as "fast track," Congress would sacrifice its right to amend the trade deals in the interest of expediency. Presidents had that authority from 1974 until 1994, when the last TPA authorization lapsed. Attempts to revive it since then have all fallen flat.

Why does it matter? In testimony yesterday before the packed Senate Finance Committee, Crane claimed that other countries now balk at negotiating with us. After years of complex haggling, the deals they strike with U.S. negotiators get so distorted by congressional amendments that everyone is forced back to the table to hash things out all over again. Instead of dealing with the hassle, Crane said everyone else is simply leaving us behind.

"The United States is losing out," Crane said. He pointed out that over 130 free trade agreements have been put in place since 1994, and that the U.S. is involved in exactly two of them. "Our competitors are enjoying the benefits of their governments’ aggressive pursuit of FTAs." The wisecracking Sen. Roberts put it a bit more colorfully. As an elected official from an agricultural state that rakes in fat cash from exports, he ventured that his constituents would be devastated if their surplus crops couldn’t find a home overseas. He said it was a "sell it or smell it" proposition -- if we can’t sell it overseas, it will sit here and rot. He unleashed a much better zinger when complaining that the new "TPA" handle didn’t accurately reflect the true gravity of the legislation: "Trade Negotiating Authority. Perhaps that’s a little better. I don’t think, that’s, uh... Let’s see, the acronym is TNA. I don’t know what that’s going to do. You know, the DNA on TNA doesn’t work out very well."

Democrats aren’t laughing. They are in a tizzy because Crane’s legislation specifically limits the president to issues "directly related to trade" when negotiating. Translation: Democratic-leaning labor and environmental interests would not be able to saddle the deals with sweeping social considerations. At a press conference in the Capitol last week, a particularly ornery gang of greens and union activists vowed to crush the legislation. A release from the lefty Public Citizen decried the encroachment of "globalization" and said TPA is "simply outdated given the reality of the broad issues under discussion in today’s international commercial negotiations."

Almost every one of the nearly 20 groups involved -- including the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Oxfam-America -- specifically endorsed free trade, but only if it was negotiated with an eye toward "social justice." Some seemed more sincere than others, of course. Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said his organization might support TPA if it allowed the president to address social issues. Morton Bahr, the blustery president of the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Workers, called the issue "irrelevant," because his union would reject TPA no matter how it was structured.

Democrats in the Senate make the same objections. According to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), open markets are essential to the world’s economic well-being, "but labor and environment must also be at the core of trade negotiations if we are truly going to level the playing field." That is, we should force Third World nations to adopt the same worker and environmental policies that Democrats prefer at home.

Sounding a bit like the leftists who are halfheartedly singing the free-market song, Rep. Crane led a chorus of Republicans who countered that the best way to help the poor bastards toiling away in developing countries was to make them all rich: "While improving standards on environment and labor is a high priority, I believe using trade as the hammer to force these changes is counterproductive... Instead, we should focus on the fact that trade itself improves labor and environmental conditions."

That kind of rhetoric might appear to place the Republicans squarely in the laissez-faire corner, but think again. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) were on hand to cheer open markets -- and pat the administration on the back forbailing out the U.S. steel industry yet again.

So it looks like everyone is for free trade, as long as it lets them export failed social programs or protect big-money industries from competition. Leaders in the developing world might want to think twice before they sign the dotted line on a deal like that.

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