- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday credited international trade and competition with helping hold down consumer prices, and discounted concerns that U.S. policy has fed a growing trade deficit.

“Consumers are able to enjoy more goods and services per hour worked, and international trade has played a considerable role in attaining these benefits for the American consumer,” the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said in an annual report.

The 437-page document included a section weighing the benefits and costs of World Trade Organization membership. Congress mandates the WTO report every five years. Once submitted, any member of Congress can sponsor a resolution to withdraw from the global trade body.

The WTO has critics in both chambers, but most lawmakers have seen little alternative to its system of international rules, which has governed commerce since 1995.

“Although I have serious concerns about some of the actions of the WTO, I strongly support our continued participation in the WTO,” Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said through a spokeswoman.

The last report, submitted by the Clinton administration in 2000, led to a 363-56 House vote against withdrawing.

Despite broad support for remaining in the WTO, the report and subsequent vote focus attention on White House trade policy, the growing trade deficit and a series of international disputes resolved by WTO tribunals — sometimes at the expense of U.S. law.

The U.S. trade deficit hit a record high of $618 billion last year, sparking concern that other nations were abusing international trade rules.

Groups like the National Association of Manufacturers say unfair trade practices in other countries, especially China, are responsible for part of the deficit and have encouraged the administration to be more aggressive when enforcing international rules.

Yesterday’s report said the deficit “has far less to do with trade policy than with broader macroeconomic factors,” such as economic growth rates.

Trade policy critics are bothered by WTO decisions against the United States, including rulings on steel tariffs, tax breaks for exporters, the way duties are distributed and the level of subsidies paid to U.S. farmers.

“Make no mistake about it: WTO ministers tell Congress to change American laws, and Congress complies,” Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, said Monday in a weekly column.

Mr. Paul, who maintains that membership is illegal and undercuts U.S. sovereignty, said he would demand withdrawal from the WTO this year. Under special rules, the measure must move to the floor for debate and a vote within 90 days.

The Bush administration said it had prevailed in more than half of all WTO cases — with 14 wins and 13 losses in four years. From 1995 to 2000, the U.S. record was 18 wins and 15 losses, the report said.

“The WTO and the global rules based trading system that underpins it is very important for the U.S. economy,” the report said.

The report also highlighted efforts to strike trade deals in the Americas and Asia.

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