Congress To Clinton: Move Over

After their fast-track win, lawmakers try to hijack trade policy

Early next year, a U.S. congressional delegation will meet with members of the European Parliament in London to try to iron out a nasty dispute over the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Europe wants a repeal of the law, which imposes penalties on foreign companies using U.S. property expropriated by the Castro regime in Cuba.

There's nothing new about the European position. What's unusual is to see Congress trying to micromanage trade negotiations, an area historically the purview of the executive branch. From its refusal to rubber-stamp Administration "fast-track" negotiating authority to its growing use of sanctions, "there is almost a constant intervention in trade issues," grouses one Administration trade official.

NITPICKING. Top targets for lawmakers are global talks on lowering barriers to financial-service providers such as banks and insurers and reforming foreign-investment rules. With both nearing completion, they are ripe for congressional nitpicking. Congress also will take up fast track again. In November, the vote to let President Clinton negotiate free-trade deals that Congress can't amend had to be postponed when representatives couldn't agree on instructions to negotiators. The list of directives to the Administration is only likely to grow, with new demands about protecting workers' rights and the environment.

Congress is also likely to tie any financial bailouts of Asia to trade concessions. The Senate Republican Policy Committee recently warned the White House that "Congress is signaling that U.S. taxpayer support for the imf [International Monetary Fund] and other lending institutions may no longer be unconditional." The gop group said that the Administration "must demand" a breakup of Korean conglomerates, a ban on imf aid to the country's automobile, semiconductor, and steel producers, and a lowering of tariffs and quotas. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has drawn up a bill that would require Congress to vote on the terms of China's admission to the World Trade Organization, which doesn't require legislative approval.

Japan also will come in for its usual lion's share of congressional scrutiny. Senators and representatives rushed to their fax machines to protest the Dec. 5 wto antitrust decision in favor of Fuji Photo Film Co. over Eastman Kodak Co., with many calling for trade sanctions against Japanese exports.

And Congress' use of trade sanctions against countries perceived to be international evildoers is exploding. More than half of all the trade sanctions imposed since the end of World War I--which now target 35 countries--were initiated in just the past four years.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky is philosophical about the attention. "There is a lot of pent-up energy being directed to international economics, and the effect of trade on the U.S. economy is being increasingly appreciated," she says.

These days, Barshefsky is so in demand by congressional committees interested in trade negotiations that overworked aides are thinking of hiring their boss a speechwriter to handle her testimonial chores. Finding a wordsmith will be easy. The trick will be trying to conduct trade policy with 535 assistants.

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