WASHINGTON — Slightly more than a month ago, Chairman Bill Thomas of the House Ways and Means Committee announced "with great pleasure" that he had lined up the votes for committee approval of a bill restoring the president’s authority to negotiate large-scale trade agreements unamendable by Congress. He predicted that it "would then go to the floor in the next week."
Two days later, on Oct. 5, the committee fulfilled the first part of the California Republican’s forecast. But no floor vote followed. Now, with the world’s largest trade conference slated to start this weekend in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, the bill is once again not listed on the calendar for House floor action. So U.S. negotiators will go into the meeting without the bargaining power President Bush says is vital.
The reason the floor vote has been delayed is uncertainty whether the Thomas bill can pass — and the fear that a defeat would be a devastating prelude to the trade conference. It is one more signal — but certainly not the first — that the domestic politics of trade have changed. President Clinton was unable to persuade Congress to renew the "fast-track" negotiating authority, now renamed trade promotion authority or TPA, his predecessors had enjoyed for 25 years. Under fast-track or TPA, Congress has a limited time to vote up or down on a trade agreement but cannot change the terms that have been negotiated.
Opposition is centered in, but not confined to, the Democratic Party, and focuses on a demand that the next round of negotiations for lower tariffs and fewer trade restrictions include stronger protections for labor and environmental standards. Thomas tried to finesse the opposition by negotiating a deal with two Ways and Means Democrats and a handful of other Democrats, drawn mainly from conservative farm districts or upscale suburban areas. But he has not persuaded the senior Democrats on his committee or Rep. Dick Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader.
Even these opponents readily acknowledge that this country benefits from reducing barriers to trade and that American negotiators need to have broad authority when they are dealing with their counterparts from around the world. But the political reality is that as trade has grown from a sliver of the American economy to the point that it accounts for a quarter of our economic activity, the number and variety of U.S. constituencies affected by trade agreements have multiplied.
The trick is to find a way to accommodate those particular interests and agendas with the overall and important national goal of expanded trade. The most pressing friction points are labor and environmental standards, because unions see jobs moving overseas to countries with low wages and environmentalists fear that trade agreements will erode support for hard-won regulatory victories here at home.
Thomas’ bill acknowledges these concerns by making enforcement of each country’s current labor and environmental standards a goal of negotiations. The rival Democratic bill, sponsored by senior Ways and Means members Charles Rangel of New York and Sander Levin of Michigan, mandates that the U.S. negotiate for achieving higher international standards.
Rangel and Levin would enforce the congressional requirements they are seeking by formalizing and enhancing the current role of congressional advisers to the trade negotiators. They would provide an automatic biennial review of the TPA process, and would let either one-third of the membership of the House or Senate or a majority of the 12 congressional trade advisers force a vote on suspending the authority if they thought the negotiators were going off-track.
Those moves to enhance congressional leverage on the talks are more than the administration will — or probably should — accept. But other ideas are floating around to boost congressional authority. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and others have proposed creating a Congressional Trade Office, akin to the Congressional Budget Office, to improve surveillance of the negotiations and give legislators more expertise in weighing trade agreements.
The delay in bringing the Thomas bill to the floor signals the likely failure of his effort to end-run the opposition. The Bush administration needs to acknowledge that it needs broader bipartisan support in Congress and the country for a new round of trade negotiations to succeed.
Opening the world economy to expanded trade is far too important to the future prosperity of this and other nations to be crippled by arguments over legislative process and negotiating priorities. The Constitution gives Congress authority in trade matters. Bush has no choice but to deal with the leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill to gain the delegation of power he is seeking.
David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.