The Bush administration’s winning streak in getting Congress to go along with trade agreements may be in trouble, particularly if Democrats make the gains predicted for them in November’s election.
It took anguished debate and an uncomfortably close vote in July for Congress to pass a trade agreement with Oman, an Arabian Sea nation of 3 million people. For President Bush’s team, which views free trade as a means to promote prosperity and democracy around the world, it was not a good sign.
Critics of the administration’s trade agenda saw the 221-205 House vote in late July to approve the trade pact with tiny Oman as a turning point.
“It’s clear that the U.S. public and Congress have had it with our trade status quo,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “We have witnessed a dramatic shift in U.S. trade politics.”
The administration has so far concluded and won congressional approval of bilateral trade agreements with Jordan, Singapore, Chile, Morocco and Bahrain as well as Oman. Last year it also won passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
“We’ve had remarkable success in moving a trade-liberalizing, trade-enhancing agenda,” U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The president and the administration are very conscious of what needs to be done: You don’t close any bad deals,” she said, noting how her negotiators were prepared to walk away from the stalled Doha Round of global trade talks.
But the 217-215 House vote last year on CAFTA showed how tough it has become to get a trade deal through Congress. It required personal appearances on Capitol Hill by Bush and Vice President Cheney and — with Democrats united in opposition — some arm-twisting of wavering Republicans to avert what would have been a devastating defeat.
Trade agreements remove barriers, such as tariffs and quotas, that make it more expensive for Americans to buy foreign goods and sell products overseas.
Democratic opponents of such deals say they don’t establish a two-way street. They cite a trade deficit that has risen from a little more than $100 billion in 1993, when the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada was approved, to more than $700 billion last year.
They complain the trade deficit with China has exploded since permanent trade relations were established with Beijing in 2000 and say the United States continues to lose factories and jobs to foreign competitors.
Democrats also charge that trade deals the administration negotiates with less-developed countries don’t do enough to prevent worker and environmental exploitation.
Schwab said her office was “very active in reaching out across the aisle,” disputing Democratic claims that their concerns are ignored. “When I’m in the country, I’m up on the Hill.”
Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., one of his party’s chief spokesmen on trade issues, said Democrats are open to trade accords that address their concerns.
“We’re for trade agreements. We want to see trade agreements advance,” Cardin said. “But it’s been a really difficult battle with the administration to advance worker rights.”
With several dozen House Republicans under pressure to protect textile and other industries in their districts, passing any trade agreement becomes a formidable task.
“The postwar consensus on free trade has largely disappeared,” said Daniel Griswald, a trade policy expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “The biggest change has been the collapse of support for free trade in the Democratic party.”
The administration can hardly put all the blame on Democrats. Anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has dimmed hopes for a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Doha Round of global trade talks collapsed in August, with the United States and the European Union trading accusations over farm subsidies and other issues.
The political situation in the Middle East also has clouded the administration’s goal of setting up a free trade zone there by 2013.
Most worrisome for the president, however, is the expiration next July of fast-track authority that gives him the power to negotiate trade deals out from under the thumb of lawmakers. Congress can still pass or defeat them, but cannot change the terms.
Bush gained that authority in 2002 after a 215-214 vote in the House. “Under the current climate,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a pro-trade Democrat, “I am not optimistic that it will be renewed.”
Schwab’s office, meanwhile, continues to aggressively pursue bilateral agreements. Negotiations are under way with Panama, South Africa and Thailand, and talks have begun with South Korea and Malaysia. The Senate Finance Committee approved measures to advance free trade with Peru and establish permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam.
Myron Brilliant, vice president for Asian affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his group is pressing for approval of the Vietnam measure by November, when Bush is scheduled to visit Hanoi for an Asian economic summit.
But “any time you head into a midterm election where so much is up for grabs,” he acknowledged, “you are going to have a difficult political environment for trade bills to get through.”
On the Net:
U.S. Trade Representative: http://www.ustr.gov/
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press