- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Do we really need more cliff-hangers right now? We are about to get another one tomorrow when the House of Representatives is set to vote on the Trade Promotion Authority Bill, H.R. 3005.

The president's "fast-track" negotiating authority, as it was previously known, lapsed in 1994 which is to say, the president's authorization to conclude trade deals with other countries that Congress can vote either up or down, but not burden with amendments. President Clinton did not expend much political capital on getting this authorization back, but restoring it was one of the top items in President Bush's election campaign. Still, the fact that it has taken the administration almost a year to gear up to the vote, on whose success hangs American credibility as a world leader on free trade, has led some to question the depth of Mr. Bush's commitment.

As of now, the vote is too close to call, but the Bush administration is cautiously optimistic. Coming on the heels of the successful meeting of the World Trade Organization in Doha, Qatar, where 142 countries agreed to start a new round of negotiations, the administration has much at stake.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, also predicts that Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is going to pass, "but I don't believe it is going to be by a whole lot of votes," as he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday. "At this time, we have exceeded the number of Republican votes we have had before, but the Democrats have been woefully deficient." Not surprisingly, we find again that business-minded Republicans are largely arrayed on the side of free trade and that Democrats, who never saw a labor union they didn't like, are mostly opposed. Passage, however, will depend on whether some 20 Democrats can be persuaded to vote with the Republicans.

The Bush administration has worked assiduously to inoculate itself on a number of trade-related issues mostly labor and environmental standards previously used by Democrats and anti-trade protesters to delegitimize global free trade. The model here has been the same as in Republican efforts on education, Social Security and welfare reform. Rather than yield the territory to the Democrats, they have wisely countered criticism with a plan of their own.

In this regard, the TPA bill is modeled on the recently passed Jordan Trade Bill. It includes provisions to promote workers' rights in other countries consistent with standards set by the International Labor Organization and states that future agreements should ensure that trading partners enforce their own laws. In acknowledgement of the pain suffered by Americans displaced by international competition, the administration has further reauthorized the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation for training and support of U.S. workers. If all that does not satisfy Democrats and other critics on the left, it is likely nothing ever will.

There is no denying, though, that the vote is a bit of a gamble. If TPA is voted down, the consequences will be felt throughout the world trading system. "People will feel they don't have to negotiate with our trade representative," Mr. Armey says. "In order to be credible he has to be able to say that things are not going to come back with a lot of changes. He will not have the needed authority."

The fact is that American workers have benefited greatly from the previous trade agreements. According to figures from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, some 12 million jobs are linked to exports, nearly 10 percent of all American jobs, and good jobs at that, paying on average 13 percent-18 percent more than non-export related jobs. The two major trade agreements of the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the last major round of international trade negotiation, the Uruguay Round, resulted in gains of between $1,300 and $2,000 for American families annually, as a result of cheaper imports. As more tariffs and trade barriers fall, the average American family could stand to gain another $2,500 a year, according to a study by the University of Michigan.

Given the stakes, it is surprising that Mr. Bush has not so far expended much effort on lobbying members of Congress. Granted, the president has a war on terrorism to run, a stimulus bill to fight for, and Israelis and Palestinians in a state of war, but one would still have expected Mr. Bush to be out in front on trade. As it is, he risks seeing his whole trade agenda go down in flames. Other members of the administration have been busily working the Hill, so you have to wonder what Mr. Bush has been waiting for.

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