After years of delay,
President Clinton has mounted an assault on Capitol Hill to restore
his "fast-track" trade negotiating authority. Fast-track gives the
president the power to negotiate trade deals quickly, unencumbered
by congressional amendment. It makes trade agreements subject to a
simple up-or-down vote. But the issue of whether or not Congress
should give the president fast-track authority is once again being
tied by reporters to the success or failure of NAFTA ó the North
American Free Trade Agreement ó and they should know better.
Every president holding office since 1974 has had fast-track
authority. In 1994, NAFTA, hailed as one of the administrationís
defining bipartisan political victories, went into effect. That same
year, Congress failed to renew fast-track authority. So whatís up?
In a word, politics.
Politics on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and at 1600
The Clinton administration
once paraded NAFTA and pushed for the expansion of the treaty
throughout the Western Hemisphere, calling for a Free Trade Area of
the Americas by 2005. Chileís admission to the NAFTA club was seen
as the next logical step to making this a reality. Yet the
prosperous Latin American nation has been kept waiting, and waiting.
Meanwhile, Chile negotiated bilateral trade agreements independently
with Canada and Mexico, and became an associate member of Latin
Americaís powerhouse trade bloc ó the Mercosur ó last October.
Likewise, the European
Union and Japan have jealously eyed the markets of Latin America and
have negotiated their own pacts with this rapidly expanding economic
region ó second only to Asia in its rate of growth.
Now the president acts as
if Congress has been tying his hands by its delay in restoring his
fast-track trade authority. But it was the administration that
dropped the free trade banner during the 1996 presidential campaign,
cautiously courting labor unions and environmental interest groups.
These groups want tough side agreements on foreign labor practices
and environmental policies included in any fast-track deal.
Congress has been divided
on this score, and continues to be. But it looks like President
Clinton may concede and deliver a "clean bill" to Congress without
the labor and environment restrictions. He wants to be remembered as
a "free trade president" and he isnít running for office again. So
will the president get fast-track? Not if the media insist that
restoring it will lead to "another NAFTA." Why? Because NAFTA is a
political hot potato.
Jobs, jobs, jobs. By
most accounts, NAFTA has been good for our country. Yes, some
133,000 jobs reportedly were displaced as a result of the treaty,
but about 311,000 jobs were created, for a net increase in U.S.
employment of over 175,000 jobs. These arenít quite the numbers the
administration had hoped for from NAFTA, but they certainly are in
the plus column.
Increasing exports under
NAFTA have also helped to spur economic growth. Despite Mexicoís
economic problems, the United States still exported over $56 billion
worth of goods there in 1996, an increase of about 23 percent over
1995. Exports to Canada topped $133 billion in 1996, for a 32
percent increase over the pre-NAFTA level.
But the unions donít see it
that way. They say their high-wage jobs are being displaced by NAFTA
and say theyíre ready to put their money to work in a media campaign
to block fast-track. The unions refuse to face the facts of life in
the new economy, a global economy. Itís incumbent on the media to
acknowledge evidence that free trade benefits everyone.
Free trade is a consumer
issue. Free trade, as advanced by NAFTA and any trade agreement
that reduces or abolishes tariffs and quotas, benefits the consumer.
Tariffs are a hidden tax, increasing the cost of everything we
purchase. And letís not kid ourselves, almost everything we buy
contains some component manufactured outside the U.S.
Before NAFTA, Mexican
tariffs on U.S. exports averaged 250 percent more than U.S. tariffs
on Mexican exports. Under NAFTA, the average Mexican tariff on U.S.
products has already dropped by more than 50 percent, while the
average U.S. tariff on Mexican exports has been cut by almost 60
A rising tide.
International trade represents over 26 percent of the U.S. economy ó
about triple the share in 1960. The booming global economy helps
everyone ó including our trading partners ó which in turn develop
the economic means to improve their own working and environmental
conditions. Protectionist policies that skirt this simple truth are
Itís time for congressional
Democrats and Republicans alike ó and the media ó to get this one
right. Letís not mire whether the president should have his
fast-track trade power restored with the political diatribe over
NAFTA. Free trade works. Fast-track will give the president the
authority he needs to do his job and make sure the U.S continues to
lead the global economy.
Robert Batterson is
communications director at the Center for the Study of American
Business at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author and
editor of The Dynamic American Firm (Kluwer Publishers, 1996).