Fast Track: Full Speed Ahead

America's trade policy is a mess, and fixing it should be a high priority for the new Administration. Caught between left and right in Congress, mired in petty bickering between Washington and Brussels, and undermined by antiglobalization groups, free trade is losing legitimacy. It's time to change course before the U.S. economic slowdown provokes a damaging protectionism. Here's what should be done.

The new U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick should use the recently signed trade treaty with Jordan as a model to persuade Congress to return fast-track authority to the Presidency. Congress took that authority away from President Clinton when unions and lobbying groups insisted on including labor and environmental protections in trade legislation.

The Jordan trade pact, and pending agreements with Chile and Singapore, offer a way out. Signatories agree to enforce their own labor laws and not sacrifice environmental regulations for foreign investment. All have world-standard laws on their books. There are few sanctions attached to the treaty.

These protections should be sufficient to satisfy both liberals and conservatives in Congress. Well-intentioned as it may be, it is unrealistic and unreasonable to foist First World labor and environmental standards on emerging nations. India and Mexico, both democracies, have made it abundantly clear they object. Besides, U.S. consumer groups have shown they have the clout to persuade Nike, Home Depot, and Starbucks to raise the standards of their overseas operations without mandating labor standards in trade legislation. It is equally unrealistic for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbying organizations to oppose any reference to working conditions and the environment in foreign trade treaties. Global flows of capital and goods clearly have an enormous impact in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

The new USTR has a lot on his plate. He must persuade Europe to abide by several World Trade Organization decisions that favor the U.S. on bananas. Chiquita Brands is in deep financial trouble due to European intransigence. But the restoration of fast-track authority should be the overriding trade objective of the Bush Administration. With fast-track, it can proceed with its goal of establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas that extends NAFTA from the Yukon to Patagonia.

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