The Clinton Administration's trade policy is beginning to look like a shambles. The campaign-finance scandal threatens the renewal of China's most-favored nation status. The strong dollar has pushed up imports, worsened the U.S. trade deficit, and revived the chronic clash with Japan over trade. Meanwhile, rumbles of dissatisfaction with the North American Free Trade Agreement persist.
One of the most troubling issues is the absence of fast-track authority that would allow the President to enhance trade ties with such Latin nations as Chile through agreements that open markets and slash tariffs. Fast-track authority expired about two years ago, and the Administration hasn't gotten around to trying to renew it. In part, that's because it was busy implementing NAFTA and getting the new World Trade Organization off the ground. But fears about insufficient votes in Congress have also delayed action. Now it's clear that the Administration can't proceed to new bilateral and multilateral agreements without fast-track authority.
By putting off action, the Administration managed to strengthen the hand of fast-track opponents. It's no surprise that some members of Congress, with their various constituencies, wish to wield influence in forging trade policy. The Administration needs to make the case for fast-track authority--and make it strongly. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, toting up the likely votes, and concluding that the legislation is unlikely to pass, it should undertake a full-scale marketing effort to win votes--just as it did successfully with the Chemical Weapons Treaty.
There will doubtless be grandstanding about trade with China in coming weeks, and bellyaching about Japan's recent trade gains--but that will pass. Fast-track authority transcends this political brouhaha, and is vitally important as an instrument to help break down global trade barriers.