- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

The House yesterday easily defeated a bill that would require the United States to quit the World Trade Organization.

Lawmakers voted 338-86 against withdrawing U.S. approval from the agreement establishing the WTO. The 148-nation organization has many critics in the House, but most lawmakers said there was little alternative to its system of international rules.

“An ordered and structured competition is to the advantage of the United States and that’s why overwhelmingly you will see support for staying in the WTO, nurturing and growing the WTO, even though we have a whole lot of concerns about a whole lot of issues,” said Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade issues.

The White House every five years is required to report to Congress on costs and benefits of WTO membership. Following the report, any lawmaker can submit legislation that would pull the United States out of the international trade body.

Such bills are considered doomed to defeat — the first WTO report in 2000 led to a 363-56 House vote against withdrawing. But it focuses attention on White House trade policy, the growing trade deficit and a series of international disputes resolved by WTO tribunals against the United States.

“What we are saying is, let us send a message to the president of the United States to wake up … and recognize that our current trade policies are an unmitigated failure and we must renegotiate them,” said Rep. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent. Mr. Sanders introduced the bill.

The United States helped draft the agreement creating the WTO, and the organization’s doors opened in 1995. Since then, U.S. exports of goods and services have grown 144 percent, to $1.1 trillion in 2004. But imports have grown more rapidly, creating a trade deficit in goods and services that has climbed more than six-fold, to $617 billion last year.

WTO critics acknowledged that the organization is not the driving force behind the numbers, but used yesterday’s vote to criticize some specific WTO rules as well as broader White House trade policies.

The United States has prevailed in more than half of all WTO cases, but some high-profile rulings have riled lawmakers, including decisions against steel tariffs, tax breaks for exporters, the way duties are distributed and the level of subsidies paid to U.S. farmers. WTO rulings also have touched on U.S. gambling laws.

“The [WTO] rules are rigged against workers, against the American standard of living, against the American dream, and in support of a destructive race to the bottom that rewards cheap labor, unsafe and unhealthy labor conditions, political authoritarianism, the destruction of the environment and contempt for human rights,” Mr. Sanders said.

But the Bush administration adamantly opposed the resolution, and its arguments carried the day.

“The WTO provides an important framework for a fair, rules-based, international system of trade that we benefit from every day,” U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said.

Mr. Portman is negotiating an updated, more ambitious set of WTO rules that he said will help lower trade barriers for U.S. exporters.

“[Yesterday’s] vote by the House of Representatives sends a strong message that the United States will continue to lead in the WTO,” Mr. Portman said.

No similar resolution is pending in the Senate.

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