- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

Commerce Secretary Donald Evans is now more bullish than ever about getting a fast-track trade authorization bill which he calls "a big deal" passed in this session of Congress.

A month ago, it was hard to find anyone who would give you any odds of a trade bill surviving the long-knives of Democratic and trade union opposition on Capitol Hill. But then House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, cut a deal with two moderate Democrats that greased the wheels for a bill that would give President Bush the authority to negotiate free trade agreements that can only be voted up or down by Congress. Hence, the "fast-track" label.

The deepening economic recession following the terrorist attacks on America has only made passage of a trade bill in the name of national economic security that much more likely.

"Its prospects are good. I'm hopeful about it," Mr. Evans told me during an interview in his office at the Commerce Department.

But Mr. Evans, one of Mr. Bush's closest advisers, is supersensitive to the criticism by some Democrats that the president is attempting to use the Sept. 11 tragedy to get remaining pieces of his long-stalled agenda through Congress. And he wants to turn down the heated rhetoric on both sides.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick triggered some of that heat last week when in a no-holds-barred speech to the Institute for International Economics, he drew a direct connection between giving the president trade negotiating authority and the war against terrorism. Not given to mincing words, Mr. Zoellick accused anti-free trade Democrats of playing trade union politics with the issue.

"Let's be frank. For a lot of members, even the ones who know trade is the right thing to do, they're being held back for other, rather narrow-interest reasons, some of them related to the understandable politics of where they get their money from," Mr. Zoellick said.

That statement led to howls of anger from key Democrats on Ways and Means, including Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California, who said Mr. Zoellick had "crossed the line on that kind of discussion. Trade promotion authority has no impact on the issue of terrorism."

Equally outraged, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, shot back at Mr. Zoellick: "To have the U.S.T.R. attack the patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten, undisclosed bill demands a public apology. To wrap a trade promotion authority bill in the flag and have us salute it when we haven't even seen it is unfair."

As for taking up a compromise trade bill anytime soon, Mr. Matsui weakly argued that it would be "counterproductive" to vote on a bill in a time of national turmoil.

What these Democrats are having a hard time dealing with is the cold, hard reality that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks not only demanded a strong military response but a bold economic response as well.

This was not only an attack on American citizens but on the economic foundations of this country, and that has triggered an urgent resolve in Congress to strengthen our economic security, too.

Thus, a significant tax-cutting economic stimulus bill is a certainty. The trade bill, to open up new overseas consumer markets for U.S. manufacturers, farmers and other trading sectors, has become even more important to our future economic defenses. So has the president's oil exploration bill to make us less dependent on foreign oil, which has also taken on new life in the Senate.

Negotiating free trade agreements isn't just about the business of making money; it is about expanding freedom and prosperity and stability, Mr. Evans told me.

"There's a powerful connection between economic development and freedom. The more we are able to expand the free enterprise system and strengthen our economy, the more it leads to economic growth and higher standards of living here and among the world's trading nations," he said.

Mr. Zoellick is "trying to get this country to grow to promote democracy and freedom all around the world. We have to find a trade agreement that we all agree on and not get stifled by some smaller differences we might have, and that applies to both sides," he said.

But at the same time, Mr. Evans says that Mr. Zoellick's latest effort to tie the expansion of free trade to our own national security is fair and legitimate.

"Is there a relationship between economic security and national security? Yeah," Mr. Evans said. Messrs. Rangel and Matsui take notice.

The most prosperous countries in the world are those who engage in robust global trade. The poorest countries (North Korea, India and most of Africa, for example) are those who have imposed barriers to free trade. Many of them, like Afghanistan, which has no functioning economy, have become breeding grounds for terrorism.

That is why the expansion of trade in the world's emerging markets is one of the most important and effective national security weapons at our disposal. Giving the president fast-track authority as soon as possible would be a good place to start.

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