Congress is poised to shift this week from gridlock to fast track. Senate Democrats have dropped their effective stalling tactics in return for a reasonable pledge from Majority Leader Trent Lott to bring campaign financing reforms up for a test vote by next March, clearing the way for legislation to start moving again. While the prime motivation for the agreement is the smell of pork in the stalled highway funding bill, the path is clear now for a vote on critical trade legislation.
All President Clinton wants is the same "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements that every president has possessed since 1974. There are no valid reasons to deny him, and several good reasons for Congress to restore those powers to the presidency. While much of Florida's congressional delegation, including Reps. C.W. Bill Young and Michael Bilirakis of Pinellas and Karen Thurman of Dunnellon, is wavering or actively opposing the legislation, there are other ways to address their concerns.
The fast-track legislation would give the president the authority to negotiate trade agreements and then send them to Congress for up-or-down votes with no changes. The global economy is a fact of modern life; one-third of U.S. economic growth has come from exports in recent years. No country is going to negotiate trade pacts with the United States and then let Congress adjust the terms of the deal. If members of Congress do not like an agreement, they can reject it. Most presidents are going to work with congressional leaders behind the scenes before the ink is dry to head off such embarrassments.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, a possible challenger to Vice President Al Gore in the race to become the Democrats' nominee for president in the year 2000, is playing to labor unions and other special interests by attacking the fast-track legislation. Gephardt suggests supporting Clinton's position is tantamount to ignoring concerns about protections for the environment and human rights in other countries. Those are legitimate issues, but they should be kept separate from this procedural question.
Members of Florida's congressional delegation complain that this state's farmers were hurt by the North American Free Trade Agreement because Clinton failed to follow through on promises to protect their winter vegetables from Mexican competitors. Florida tomatoes held 56 percent of the American market before NAFTA, but their market share has dropped to 35 percent. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa has the correct response. He wants Florida's farmers to be protected, but he supports the fast-track legislation so this country will be better positioned to negotiate further trade agreements.
The global market is going to continue to expand regardless of whether Clinton persuades Congress to restore the fast-track authority. But without that legislation, the United States is going to be in a much weaker position to influence how that trade occurs.