BY BRIAN TAYLOR
On September 16 the Clinton administration presented its proposal to renew legislation giving the president the ability to draft trade deals that must be voted up or down by Congress without amendment. This "fast track" approval has become the subject of much debate in Congress and in the big-business press.
The proposal would renew powers that had been available to U.S. presidents from 1974 - 1994. The White House argues that this would give the president freer rein to use Washington's economic muscle to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), without trade pacts getting bogged down in Congress. The aim of NAFTA, which Congress approved in 1993, was to consolidate U.S. dominance over its weaker imperialist rival in Canada and to intensify the exploitation of Mexican labor and resources by U.S. capital.
Lee Hamilton, a Democratic congressman from Indiana, stated, "Fast track is not just about trade, it is about U.S. leadership and influence in the world."
The governments of a number of semicolonial countries in South America have tried to strengthen their position to deal with Washington and other imperialist powers through formations such as the Mercosur trade block, which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Mercosur has already been approached by the European Union (EU) about forming a "free trade" alliance, and is looking to expand to include other Latin American economies.
The result of delaying fast track legislation is that "the U.S. is losing leverage in hemispheric free trade talks," wrote Robert Mosbacher in the September 12 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Mosbacher, who is the chairman of a business organization called Council of the Americas, warned, "The failure of the U.S. to secure fast-track leaves open the distinct possibility that the agenda and timetable for these talks will be dominated by other countries."
By and large, the Republican majority in the House and Senate supports unconditional fast track authority. Clinton has also been able to muster support from some Democrats, such as Rep. Calvin Dooley of California. Dooley, a founder of the New Democratic Coalition, argues that the president's proposal will spur growth in exports. Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle also supports Clinton's position.
The trade legislation is opposed by House minority leader Richard Gephardt and many other Democratic politicians, as well as trade union officials who argue that the agreements have no provisions to prevent other countries from undercutting U.S. products by employing cheaper labor, and less workplace regulations from environmental to health questions. Gephardt, who is promoting himself as the "fair trade" advocate, is a likely contender for the Democratic nomination against Vice President Albert Gore in the next presidential elections. These politicians have been pressing Clinton to add a provision in the fast track legislation that requires a certain level of environmental, and workplace conditions as part of trade deals.
In a mild concession to this wing of the president's party, the September 16 White House proposal listed "workers rights and environmental protection" as "negotiating objectives" that Washington would supposedly pursue through the World Trade Organization. This seems unlikely to resolve the debate, however.
U.S. representative and seated Republican Party conference chair John Boehner said that Clinton's wavering position has prospects for approval "sliding in a hurry." An editorial that appeared in the September 10 Financial Times speaking against adding provisions onto fast track legislation stated, "Mr. Clinton, who supported such demands two years ago, should now drop them."
A smaller layer of Republican congressmen oppose the
fast track proposals, echoing the "America first" arguments
put forward by ultrarightist Patrick Buchanan in the
presidential election. Rep. Robert Barr from Georgia, for
instance, said he opposes the legislation because NAFTA is
responsible for loss of U.S. jobs.
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