- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Just as President Bush is adopting the multilateralist foreign policy they urged upon him, Democrats are getting ready to torpedo a key piece of it his power to negotiate trade agreements.

Democrats loudly accused Mr. Bush of isolating the United States when he dumped the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and threatened to abandon the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

But now, as Mr. Bush works with an international coalition to fight terrorism, it's the Democrats who are intent on isolating America in the global economy by inhibiting the president's power to negotiate a new worldwide free-trade agreement and a Western Hemisphere free-trade zone.

Democrats are doing so partly out of distrust for Mr. Bush's willingness to promote labor and environmental standards and partly in fealty to their protectionist labor union base.

In the process, they are undercutting the spirit of bipartisanship that has prevailed in Washington since Sept. 11 while accusing Mr. Bush of doing the same by bringing up such a divisive issue now.

With a House vote expected next week or the week after, Mr. Bush made his first big lobbying push for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in meetings with fence-sitting Republicans and Democrats last Tuesday. But vote counters of both parties say he is currently far short of the votes required to pass it.

One business lobbyist said he could count at most 15 Democrats as favoring the TPA measure passed last week by the House Ways and Means Committee, plus 185 Republicans, leaving Mr. Bush nearly 20 votes short.

A Democratic trade expert said he knows of only 12 or 13 Democrats who have privately or publicly pledged to support TPA, with perhaps 10 to 12 more on the fence.

The Ways and Means measure was worked out between Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, and three Democrats: Reps. Cal Dooley of California, William Jefferson of Louisiana and John Tanner of Tennessee, who were authorized to negotiate by Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel of New York.

However, Mr. Rangel now declares that Democrats were inadequately consulted. He has teamed up with Rep. Sander Levin, Michigan Democrat, to propose an alternative bill that will give Democrats a way of saying they are pro-trade while killing fast-track authority.

The Thomas bill includes labor and environmental objectives as part of fast-track legislation for the first time, requires trading partners to enforce their own laws, creates assistance programs to help them do so, and imposes sanctions if they don't.

Mr. Levin contends that labor and environmental protections in the Thomas bill are inadequate and that Congress wouldn't be given enough opportunities to participate in trade negotiations.

The Levin bill would impose 70 pages of specific labor and environmental objectives for administration trade negotiators to secure in trade agreements, then give an 18-member congressional panel veto power over the treaties just after they were negotiated.

As Mr. Dooley observed, no doubt correctly, "Labor would oppose the Levin bill if it were the only one standing. They're in the Dark Ages on this issue."

Philosophically, labor and mainstream Democrats believe improved labor standards should be imposed on other countries at the price of reduced access to U.S. markets.

The Republican business view supported by Democratic presidents in the past is that countries improve their labor standards and environments as they get richer by selling their products to the world through freer trade.

Besides loyalty to labor, some of the Democrats' hard-line opposition is based on pure partisanship. When Democrat Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office, 73 members of his party voted with him to support permanent normal trade status for China.

In 1997, about 43 Democrats were committed to fast track before it was pulled from the floor, and in 1998, when Republicans brought it up to embarrass Clinton with a legislative defeat, 29 Democrats voted for it.

Some Democrats may be motivated as well by loyalty to Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, widely viewed as labor's candidate in the 2004 presidential election.

Others are said to be miffed at Mr. Thomas for the partisan, arbitrary way he runs Ways and Means, especially on tax matters.

One surprising convert to the "dark side" on fast track is Rep. Bob Matsui, California Democrat. He has such a longstanding record as a trade supporter that the administration ought to make an effort to address his concerns, which are based on the congressional oversight issue.

"Trade has changed," Mr. Matsui said. "When we vote up or down on a trade agreement, we can change U.S. antitrust law, intellectual property protections, or food-safety law.

"Pat Buchanan was premature in saying it, but he was right about the fact that American sovereignty is affected by trade agreements. Congress has to have more of a say in this [issue]. Under fast track, we have just 20 hours of debate and then have to vote up or down on a complicated, detailed agreement."

Mr. Bush should try to increase congressional participation in trade negotiations. But in the end, he has to spend some of the political capital he has accumulated fighting terrorism to beat the Democrats and labor in the name of international engagement.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide