As the ferocious debate over NAFTA showed, selling free trade to Congress isn't easy. Now it's the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT) that's struggling against a strong head wind. With the free trade pact up for approval, Congress and the Clinton Administration are wrangling over how to replace the $12 billion in tariff revenues that would be lost over the next five years if the U.S. approves GATT. While the Administration has proposed a package of revenue hikes and spending cuts, congressional leaders have been unwilling to push for what amounts to enabling legislation for GATT.
This foot-dragging has encouraged every interest group that can find some minor flaw in GATT to crawl out of the woodwork. Environmental and consumer groups worry that GATT sets up a new World Trade Organization that could gut U.S. environmental and safety laws, such as fuel-efficiency standards. Conservative nationalists fear that GATT will force the U.S. to relinquish sovereignty to an international organization.
But free trade is far too important to the country's economic future to be caught up in these side issues. Far more than ever, the U.S. depends on trade to fuel growth. The fastest-growing markets are overseas, and U.S. companies have learned how to thrive on the free flow of goods and ideas across borders. Any hesitancy about approving the General Agreement would only encourage free trade's opponents, both at home and abroad. Congress should pass GATT--now.