Can this Congress be trusted even with trade policy? The poisonous partisanship and Presidential political jockeying that have so far marked the 105th are swiftly making a mockery of any "national" trade policy that might focus on the country's best overall interests. Along with balancing the budget, entitlement reform, campaign finance reform, and every other important piece of the nation's business, trade policy is being held hostage to the egotistical whims and power plays of legislators. It is a sickening display.
On the Democratic side, there is Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), running hard for President in 2000 by pandering to free-trade bashers. Gephardt is risking a new cold war by opposing the renewal of China's most-favored-nation status, which comes to a vote in July. He also favors a congressional oversight (read veto) over China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Long a foe of NAFTA, Gephardt opposes giving the President "fast-track" authority to expand it to include Chile and other South American countries. President Clinton, a tried-and-true free-trader in his first term, is edging closer to Gephardt's populist protectionism, seeking sanctuary from the Republican pounding on Donorgate. Ditto for Vice-President Al Gore.
From the Republicans, the shift toward both protectionism and a cold war with China is palpable. A wholesale retreat on MFN is under way, with the Religious Right joining trade protectionists and geopolitical alarmists in opposing renewal or entry of China into the WTO. Allegations, yet to be proven, that China attempted to influence the 1996 elections, play into the GOP's strategy of smashing the Clinton Administration on the rock of Donorgate (while congressional Republican misconduct goes unexamined). As for extending NAFTA via the fast track, it is the last thing many conservatives want to do.
Do any of these politicians actually understand the critical role global trade and investment have played in the economic expansion of the past six years? Do they comprehend how exports have generated growth and better-paying jobs, especially in high technology, while imports have kept inflation incredibly low? Do they realize that impatient Chile has already joined with Brazil and Argentina in a new free-trade grouping, Mercosur, that is rivaling NAFTA? And do they realize the historic implications of injecting partisan pettiness into foreign policy, threatening relations with China? If they do, it doesn't seem to matter to them. The trade deficit, totaling $170 billion over the past 12 months, is the widest on record.
In Washington, life revolves around the never-ending election, the nonstop raising of campaign funds, the ceaseless politics of positioning and place. This is not the way to lead a nation into the 21st century. It's not the way to lead, period.