Holding Help For Africa Hostage To Fast Track

The plan to lower trade barriers to African goods looked certain to sail through Congress this spring. And why not? The Congressional Black Caucus was behind it, the President wanted it in hand before a scheduled trip to Africa, and Republicans saw a chance to further free trade and improve their standing with African Americans. Then along came Phil.

On Jan. 28, House Ways & Means trade subcommittee Chairman Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) stunned a conference on Africa by announcing he wanted to link the legislation to the highly controversial fast-track trade bill that Clinton has vowed to resurrect this year. Now, the gambit may doom both.

Crane's strategy: Pressure black representatives who oppose fast track to reverse themselves and save the African trade measure. The idea appeals "to my Machiavellian side," concedes Crane, whose district is filled with exporters large and small. "If we can get some more of the Black Caucus, let's do it."

MODEST EFFORT. But a steamed-up Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the trade panel, predicts that Crane's ploy will fail: He says only a few of the 38 House caucus members are prepared to give Clinton expanded authority to negotiate trade deals, and fast track's opponents will stand firm. "If it were any other region of the world, we wouldn't be talking about linking fast track to this bill," Rangel pointedly complains.

The Africa initiative is a modest effort to spur economic development in the 48 nations of sub-Saharan Africa by lowering U.S. tariffs and quotas on such goods as clothing in return for market reforms. In addition, the quasi-public Overseas Private Investment Corp. would establish a $650 million fund to invest in highways, bridges, and airports. And the Export-Import Bank would expand loans, guarantees, and insurance to the region, home to 700 million people. The bill also holds out the hope of eventual free-trade deals with the most developed African nations, such as South Africa.

President Clinton badly wanted to sign the bill before traveling to the continent on a five-nation visit in March. The measure is also popular with Republicans in Congress because it costs fewer taxpayer dollars than direct aid, appeals to the GOP's free-market instincts, and lets Republicans show they can take up a cause popular with blacks.

The bill also makes economic sense. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa hit 4% in 1996--the highest rate in a decade--and may have been even higher last year. U.S. exports there are already outstripping shipments to the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. Total U.S.-African trade rose 18% in 1997, topping the growth in overall U.S.-world trade.

ALL OR NOTHING. So why hold the Africa bill hostage to fast track? In a word, business. Corporate lobbyists, whose support is critical for passing fast track, are insisting on an all-or-nothing strategy. They have locked arms around the GOP's 1997 version, even though it drew support from scarcely a fifth of House Democrats. That was well short of the votes needed to offset defections by conservative House Republicans unwilling to hand Clinton a victory--even though it would have promoted free trade. Republicans could increase fast track's appeal to Democrats by expanding provisions to protect labor, human rights, and the environment. But business wants to retain the language in the earlier bill that prohibited such issues from being raised in future trade talks.

White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles is still appealing to business groups to agree to a compromise. But for the moment, Crane's maneuver has left the African trade bill and fast track in a dead calm.

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