Newt May Have Put Fast Track On An Even Slower Boat

Is Newt Gingrich trying to save fast-track trade legislation? Or is he sending it on a slow boat to oblivion?

It may have looked like a masterstroke on June 25, when the House Speaker tried to enlist American farmers in a campaign to revive the stalled fast-track trade bill. A dozen votes from fence-sitting rural lawmakers might be enough to send the measure to President Clinton this fall. And besides, Republicans could show Corporate America that they care as much about business' agenda as they do about the concerns of social conservatives.

But fast-track supporters may wind up disappointed anyway. They fear Gingrich's gambit is aimed less at securing passage of the trade proposal than at exploiting differences on trade among the AFL-CIO, congressional Democrats, and the White House. Because House Democrats depend on labor for money, volunteers, and votes, they are less apt to embrace fast-track--just as the AFL-CIO is setting up for the fall campaign. "The agriculture and business interests that are committed to fast-track say they don't want to be a pawn in an effort to pass it if the primary motive is just one of politics," says Representative Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.), a fast-track supporter who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.

That makes passage iffy right before the November election and could reduce fast-track's chances for early 1999, the current target. The reason: Democrats who might support the bill after the election may be forced into an early declaration of opposition--which would be embarrassing to reverse next spring. "[Gingrich] could be doing more damage than good by locking in anti-fast-track votes without gaining more support," frets free-trader Edith R. Wilson of the Progressive Policy Institute.

The worry is understandable. The Speaker is known for springing legislative surprises for partisan advantage. Indeed, he disclosed his fast-track plan after crashing a bipartisan news conference of House Agriculture Committee members who were expressing alarm about declining farm exports and sinking commodity prices. The group's main goal was to push for House passage of an additional $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund. Gingrich upstaged the group by promising quick House action on the IMF bill and more: fast-track, pressure on Europe to reduce farm subsidies, renewal of China's trade status, and an exemption from trade sanctions for farm-export finance programs.

BAD TIMING. Farmers, after all, are feeling particularly vulnerable. Farm exports in the first quarter of 1998 were down 2% from the same period in 1997. Worse, world commodity prices have dropped because of high crop yields. For U.S. farmers, the timing is terrible. Congress began phasing out their subsidies in 1996 in return for a promise to boost exports with an aggressive market-opening trade policy. "Everything was going gangbusters, but now--kaplooey," laments Daniel Lipton of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Gingrich has other plans to relieve angst in the Farm Belt--traditionally GOP turf. One idea is to give congressional farm committees an expanded role in supervising Administration trade negotiators under fast-track. But he has done none of the other spadework necessary to cultivate fast-track support. Administration officials haven't been asked to mount the Herculean effort required to boost Democratic supporters from last year's 45 to a needed 70. And the bill still contains curbs on labor rights and environmental protection that offend moderate Democrats and Republicans. That shows the Speaker may be more concerned about holding on to the GOP's thin margin in the House than on passing a trade bill this year.