Clinton's Trade Team Is No Dream Team

During an official trip to India in 1991, U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills visited the Taj Mahal. As she stood marveling at the tableau, a gaggle of tourists wheeled and trained their cameras on a startled Hills. No wonder. In many countries, she's the Bush Administration's best-known Cabinet member. Indeed, Hills has been burned in effigy in Paris, Seoul, and Tokyo--the ultimate tribute to a U.S. trade warrior.

Not bad for the overseer of an agency with just 150 employees. And the fact is, the job of trade ambassador has become critical. The U.S. trade deficit has exploded, foreign nations have erected more sophisticated barriers to U.S. exports, and high-technology rivals have won rich government subsidies. The job of leveling the playing field for the U.S. falls to the trade rep.

PAYOFF. But Bill Clinton seems to have missed the point. Instead of seeking an experienced USTR or one with the proven ability to steer bills through Congress, he made the post a political payoff.

Clinton initially dangled the USTR job before Ronald H. Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But Brown held out for the broader turf of the Commerce Dept. Then the slot was offered to Arizona ex-Governor Bruce E. Babbitt, who went instead to the Interior Dept. Finally, the USTR job was awarded to Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles attorney who was Clinton's campaign manager. Relevant trade experience? Zip.

That could haunt the new Administration. After Jan. 20, a number of crucial trade deadlines loom (table). The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by President Bush on Dec. 17, now must be drafted into law. More than a dozen committees will hold hearings on the huge package, and Kantor will have to perform as principal witness. He also faces a Mar. 2 deadline for the six-year, 108-nation trade talks known as the Uruguay Round. Both pacts require skillful shepherding on Capitol Hill, and Kantor wasn't known for persuasive diplomacy in the Presidential campaign.

It's possible Clinton's pol-heavy trade team will turn out to be masterful. Maybe Kantor and Brown, like Hills, will grow into their jobs. Hills was an antitrust and housing expert when she took the post in 1989. But she handled it with aplomb, negotiating free-trade pacts with Canada and Mexico, and cracking open markets in Japan, Korea, and Europe.

Kantor will have to be an even quicker study. Supporters insist that he is. "Mickey is smart, tough as nails, and a good negotiator," says Michael S. Berman, a Clinton adviser. Indeed, some Kantor defenders are struggling to make his inexperience a plus. Says Democratic consultant Anthony Podesta: "The fact that Mickey hasn't been a Washington trade lobbyist is an asset, not a liability."

If that's true, then Commerce Secretary-designate Brown carries some heavy liabilities. As a superlobbyist for Washington's Patton, Boggs & Blow, Brown represented many foreign companies, including most of the Japanese electronics industry. Even that doesn't make him a trade expert, as Brown readily admits. Recently, he confided to friends: "I've been coasting--now I've really got to learn some stuff." Indeed, Carleton College political economist Steven Schier asks, if Clinton is serious about promises to make Commerce an export-promotion powerhouse, "why would he pick a hack like Brown?"

Clinton's team does not lack for trade thinkers. Yet they are not at the conventional places: Lloyd Bentsen at Treasury, Laura D'Andrea Tyson at the Council of Economic Advisers, and Robert B. Reich at the Labor Dept. all have been active in the field. "They'll generate the ideas," says one Clinton aide. "Ron and Mickey will be the supersalesmen."

MODERATOR. Clinton seems confident that he can make this setup work. Under his tribal, chautauqua-like approach to government, Clinton moderates among rival interests, then makes the final decisions himself. The method puts a huge burden on Clinton, but it may work better than George Bush's stifling teamwork approach.

But time is short. Clinton wants to administer some long-term medicine to the U.S. economy, and neither Kantor nor Brown has his license to practice yet. With so many crucial trade deadlines looming, the Clinton team can't afford much on-the-job training.

      NAFTA The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed by President Bush on 
      Dec. 17, but legislation implementing the deal must still be drafted, and sold 
      to some reluctant legislators. President-elect Clinton has promised to 
      negotiate new side agreements on labor rights and the environment
      GATT The Uruguay Round, a massive, six-year attempt to solve trade disputes 
      among 108 nations is fast approaching a March deadline
      CHINA Clinton vows to be tougher with China by threatening to withhold 
      most-favored-nation trading status unless it improves its human rights record
      JAPAN Japanese hardliners are urging a go-slow approach to trade 
      liberalization. Barriers to imports keep Japan's trade surplus at record levels
      DATA: BW
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE