TOPICS > Politics

Politics of Trade

May 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: At the Foxglove Flower Shop in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the roses come from Ecuador and Colombia. They’re well priced for American consumers, courtesy of the Andean Trade Act, which eliminates import tariffs on many products from four South American nations. Since the Act took effect a decade ago, cut flower imports from those countries have blossomed into a $600 million-a- year industry. And that’s been good for flower retailers like Foxglove. But cheaper imports also can hurt American businesses. Over recent years, foreign steel displaced many U.S. mills, putting thousands of steelworkers out of jobs. Assisting such workers and renewing the trade deal with the four Andean nations both are popular ideas in Congress. So Democrats who control the Senate decided to tie those issues to a much more controversial trade item, giving the President far-reaching power to negotiate trade deals. Some republicans– who generally support giving the President so- called trade promotion authority– were unhappy the Democrats tied it to worker assistance and Andean trade. Oklahoma’s Don Nickles:

DON NICKLES: There is three bills jammed into one.

KWAME HOLMAN: Trade promotion, or fast track authority, gives a President the ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries which Congress may either approve or reject, but not modify in any way. Every President since Gerald Ford has had fast-track negotiating authority. That ended in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s tenure. By the time the George Bush Presidential Library was dedicated in 1997, Mr. Clinton and his predecessors were fighting an uphill battle to get the Presidential trade authority renewed.

JIMMY CARTER: The last couple of days, I’ve been calling as many as… as many democratic Congressmen as I could to try to get them to support our fast track.

GEORGE BUSH: I am passionately committed to President Clinton’s position on free and fair trade.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now, the second President Bush hopes the time is right for him to win the privilege his father enjoyed, trade promotion authority.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The good thing about TPA is it allows me to negotiate, or my administration to negotiate, and then Congress gets to vote on the terms, up or down. And that’s important for the nations represented in this world. It gives them confidence to negotiate a treaty with the United States without it being fine-tuned by numerous experts on the hill on what is right or wrong about trade.

KWAME HOLMAN: But many members, especially those whose states have been hurt by steel and agriculture imports, remain leery. North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan:

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Fast track means that someone negotiates a trade agreement somewhere around the world on behalf of the United States, and then it comes to the United States Senate and they run it through this body under what is called fast track, meaning that this body has agreed to handcuff itself and not offer any amendments, in fact not be allowed to offer any amendments to a trade agreement. I happen to think that that abridges the Constitution of the United States, but not many agree, I guess, and so…

KWAME HOLMAN: Such concerns prompted Senators to approve an amendment that would allow the Senate remove any item in a trade deal that violates laws that ban importing very low priced goods, known as dumping. But Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that would defeat the central purpose of granting trade authority to the President in the first place.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: The issue is whether or not the President will be credible if, when he reaches an agreement, there is opportunity on the floor of the Senate to have separate votes on separate parts of the agreement, so some can be dropped and others might be adopted. Well, do you think the other 142 countries of the WTO are going to negotiate with our country on those bases? Do you think that there will be final agreement? No.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. President, I rise today in order to oppose this legislation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators worried about the negative impact of trade deals are counting on so- called trade adjustment assistance to help workers displaced by cheaper imports with wage and health benefit subsidies.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My view has always been that there are far more winners than losers in expanding our trade around the world. But we also recognize that there are some losers, there are some who, for whatever reason, may have been dislocated. When those occasions occur, I think our country owes those workers a future, owes those workers some safety net to ensure that their health needs, and hopefully, their short-term unemployment needs are addressed.

KWAME HOLMAN: But New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg said helping unemployed workers pay for health insurance would create a conflict with those who are employed.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: In this bill, there is a brand new major entitlement, which will essentially say that, if you’re put out of work, allegedly because of a trade event, you will have the right to get health insurance and have that health insurance paid for by the taxpayers, or 70% of it, which will create the anomalous situation, the really terrible situation that people who are working for a living, working hard, working 40, 50, 60 hours a week and who do not have health insurance will end up paying an increased tax burden to pay to subsidize the health insurance of somebody who does not have a job, is not working and who is getting already significant unemployment benefits, training benefits, education benefits, and now would be getting very significant new health insurance benefits.

KWAME HOLMAN: There is much less controversy over restoring the free trade relationship between the U.S. and the four Andean nations, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Oklahoma’s Don Nickles said that’s overdue.

SEN. DON NICKLES: I happen to think the Andean Trade Nations Act needs to pass. Its authorization has expired months ago and tariffs were supposed to be imposed last week on four Andean countries that really need our help — tariffs that are as high as 15%, 25%, 30% on countries that haven’t had to pay those tariffs for the last ten years. And so we need to assist those countries.

KWAME HOLMAN: After nearly a month of debate, the Senate has considered issues ranging from but the worker protection measures added to the Senate bill will make it difficult to meld with a House measure that contains only trade negotiation authority for the President.