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Protecting the Baubles

February 14, 1988

The record trade deficit for 1987 conceals unmistakable evidence that important corrections are taking hold, that export growth is strong. This in turn holds a sobering warning for those who would make trade a political issue, who would intrude into delicate trade negotiations with crude instruments of punishment and protectionism.

Nevertheless, leaders in Congress are pressing ahead with their omnibus trade bill. The Democratic Party has made a particular commitment to the legislation, and in its zeal to ride to the rescue of all sorts of allegedly abused business and labor interests it is inviting the construction of one of the most regressive and damaging pieces of legislation contrived in recent years. It has become a lobbyists' delight, each special interest attaching its own glittering bauble with little appreciation that their sum weight will jeopardize two great opportunities for economic expansion.

Those two opportunities are (1) the new round of talks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Geneva, where trade issues of critical importance to the United States are on the agenda, and (2) the newly signed free-trade agreement with Canada, the nation's most important trading partner.

Unfortunately, congressional leaders are insisting on action first on the omnibus bill, which itself could cripple the Geneva talks and undermine the enormous value of the Canadian treaty. By the time they allow a vote on the Canadian agreement, there may be little left to cheer about.

There is no need for an omnibus trade bill. There is a need only for congressional action to renew global trade negotiating authority for the U.S. government, including provision for fast-track consideration of new agreements by Congress.

The perils of proceeding with an omnibus bill are manifest in the way the trade issue has been misused in the presidential primary elections, particularly by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the author of the single most damaging amendment in the omnibus bill. These protection revivalists argue sanctions and automatic retaliation in the guise of creating a "level playing field" for American exporters at the very moment when American exporters are doing very well, and just when the Geneva negotiations can open new opportunities for them to do even better. Clearly they are more interested in protecting the elements of the American economy that cannot compete in the world--a prescription for the decline of the U.S. economy.

The President has adequate resources now to take action against unfair trading practices. The proliferation of those actions is evidence that the authority is being used for reasonable remedies. These measures were never intended to provide sanctuary for the inefficient and the redundant, for those unable or unwilling to compete. To tinker with them now, and to restrict the options now left with the President, would only increase the risks of abuse.

Congress will make an authentic contribution to the improvement of the nation's economy simply by extending the trading authority of the President and by approving the farsighted free-trade agreement with Canada.

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