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We need another look at our trade policy

One of the important, if overlooked, consequences of the scandals, investigations and political controversies of the final Clinton years was a loss of time and momentum in advancing trade policy. While President Clinton was able in 2000 _ with major help from business lobbyists _ to muscle through the legislation needed to clear the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization, he failed to gain congressional renewal of the broad negotiating authority all his recent predecessors had used to lower the barriers to international trade.

The continuing criticism from parts of organized labor about the North American Free Trade Agreement escalated into the massive demonstrations that disrupted the WTO meeting in Seattle in December 1999. The same liberal House Democrats who defended Clinton against impeachment demanded guarantees of environmental and worker protections in new trade agreements. Rather than confront his own hard-core congressional supporters, or the Seattle demonstrators, Clinton backed off and let the broad trade agenda slide.

Among those who follow the issue, including trade officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations, there is near-universal concern that the hiatus has gone on dangerously long. Other countries are signing their own bilateral and regional deals, while public opinion in this country has become increasingly hostile to the trade policies most economists credit for a significant share of the past decade's gains in America's standard of living.

Next month, Bush officials will start making up for lost time. Robert Zoellick, an able returnee from the first Bush administration and newly named head of the Office of the United States Trade Representative, goes to Buenos Aires on April 6 for ministerial talks on a proposed Western Hemisphere Free Trade Agreement. Two weeks later, President Bush will take up the same subject in a Quebec City Summit of the Americas, with the presidents of other nations in this hemisphere.

By then, the administration also plans to have sent Congress the outline of a major trade legislation package, including several bilateral agreements and the request for the broad negotiating authority that lapsed during Clinton's final years.

Zoellick has been busy sowing the ground for this renewed effort, finding allies among some key Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and discussing policy differences with such critics as the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney. The administration approach on trade is notably more flexible and more bipartisan than it has been on Bush's tax cut _ including consideration of some additional labor and environmental standards in at least some of the new trade pacts.

But no one pretends the domestic trade battles ahead will be easy. The Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank that supports expanded trade, has just published a sobering analysis of public opinion in a booklet, Globalization and the Perceptions of American Workers. After examining scores of polls, authors Kenneth Scheve and Matthew Slaughter say that while large majorities recognize that free trade may bring lower prices and a greater variety of goods, they also think the costs _ in terms of job losses and lower wages _outweigh the benefits.

An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last April, for example, found that by 48 percent to 34 percent, Americans think foreign trade is bad for the U.S. economy. But public opinion is not monolithic. Instead, as Institute Director Fred Bergsten puts it, less-skilled workers are "much more likely to oppose freer trade" than their more-skilled counterparts.

Bergsten and Carla Hills, a notable former occupant of Zoellick's job, argued at a conference on Capitol Hill that the concerns of these less-skilled workers must be taken seriously, not ignored. As Bergsten put it, "popular support for further liberalization (of trade) is likely to be conditioned on effective government assistance to help workers adjust to its adverse effects."

Bergsten's conference provided a platform for Robert Litan, a Brookings Institution economist, and the University of California's Lori Kletzer to discuss one idea for alleviating that economic anxiety: a guarantee that any worker forced into a lower-paying job would have a substantial portion of his or her lost income made up by the government for as long as two years, while acquiring the skills needed to move up in the new office or factory. The proposal for what would be, in effect, a new entitlement has its critics, both in the administration and in organized labor, but it hints at the kind of open-mindedness that will be needed to build broader political support for free trade.

Bush is wise to move this issue back onto the national agenda.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group