Commentary: Why Fast Track May Be Going Nowhere

Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was angry. As head of the Congressional Black Caucus, she had invited White House representatives to a Sept. 4 meeting with the 39-member group to talk about President Clinton's upcoming "fast-track" trade bill. But Black Caucus members were incensed when U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman stood them up. That gave the floor to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who was supposed to debate fast track with the Administration's contingent. Instead, he railed against the trade initiative as "a step backward" for working Americans.

That faux pas was just one of the many tactical blunders that have all but sunk any chance of getting a trade bill through Congress this year. And passing a bill to authorize the President to negotiate new trade agreements won't get any easier next year during the congressional elections.

LOCKSTEP. The fact is, the Administration grew complacent about winning another big policy battle. It assumed that the GOP, prodded by business lobbyists, would fall into ideological lockstep behind anything labeled "free trade." That misplaced confidence led the Clintonites to promise a bill last spring--then dither for another six months before producing it. Meanwhile, CEOs and lobbyists at the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce refused throughout the summer to endorse a trade bill sight unseen. They feared it would call for new environmental and labor regulations, as liberal Democrats proposed. Fast-track opponents such as the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club used the time to equate trade liberalization with stagnant wages, sweatshop labor abroad, and a rapidly growing U.S. trade deficit.

At the same time, Clinton hasn't given Democrats sufficient reason to buck their labor and environmental allies--and hasn't demonstrated to Republicans why they should hand him another big legislative victory. To do a free-trade deal with Chile? So that Nike Inc. and Boeing Co. can move more production abroad?

There's a bigger point. Without fast track, U.S. trade negotiators could be sidelined during scheduled negotiations in Geneva on world agriculture, telecommunications, and software, three areas where U.S. exporters rule.

With Clinton largely absent from the debate, partisan bickering has flourished. GOP leaders boycotted Clinton's Sept. 10 fast-track kickoff ceremony at the White House after learning that the administration's proposal was still being rewritten to satisfy last-minute demands from Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) for provisions on labor rights, environmental protection, and agriculture. When President Clinton strode into the East Room--35 minutes late--a row of chairs reserved for congressional Republicans stood empty. Now, even normally free-trade Republicans such as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas are attacking the White House plan--finally outlined on Sept. 16--as a sellout to labor that might require states to drop right-to-work laws.

By the time Clinton introduced his proposal, say congressional staffers of both parties, the draft was already on a resuscitator. Now, rather than starting with the Clinton plan, Senate Finance Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) are drawing up their own bills. Subcommittee and other hearings on those bills likely will take up most of the seven weeks remaining before Congress recesses.

The Clinton Administration isn't conceding defeat. "We're about where we thought we'd be, and things are moving forward," insists Barshefsky. America Leads on Trade, a 500-member business coalition backing fast track, will soon begin airing free-trade television ads in 103 congressional districts. "We have suffered greatly from the delay, but we still hold out the hope of congressional action this year," says the group's chairman, James T. Christy, a vice-president of TRW Inc. But unless the Administration can provide some reasons for members of both parties to stick their necks out, further trade deals may be years away.