TOPICS > Politics

Fast Track Derailed

November 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: President Clinton and his congressional allies fought long and hard through the weekend, trying to muster the support he needed to approve a fast track trade bill, but this morning the president conceded he had asked Speaker Gingrich to put it off indefinitely because he was short of votes. We hear now from both sides of the struggle: first, the president’s trade representative Charlene Barshefsky. Welcome, Ambassador. Why couldn’t the president muster the votes he needed?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY, U.S. Trade Representative: I think there were a variety of factors at play but first let’s remember what he did muster: a majority of Democrats in the Senate, a majority of Republicans in the Senate, a majority of Republicans in the House, and a good number of Democrats in the House. We came very, very close to this.

MARGARET WARNER: How close do you think you were?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: Within several votes. I think there were a couple of things at play. On the substantive side I think the vote or the feeling in the House, in part, reflects an underlying economic insecurity. We’re in an unusual period, where the U.S. economy is the strongest it’s been in a generation under the president’s leadership, but there is a growing economic insecurity and economic anxiety probably brought about largely because of rapid changes in technology but also in at least a smaller part because of rapid changes in technology but also in at least a smaller part because of trade. I think that insecurity and anxiety affected members’ perceptions of the way in which they should vote but also at the end of the debate, fast track became linked to family planning issues, the so-called Mexico City language. These two issues, both of which are important to the president and about which he feels very deeply, were actually on a collision course with respect to the mixture of votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain that; that the Republicans wanted him to agree to something on family planning that he wouldn’t–

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: That he could not. In exchange for their votes on fast track–which would of course be equally important to the president–but for the president’s point of view these two issues, first of all, should not have been enmeshed, and second of all are of such overriding importance in and of themselves that he had to make a decision to maintain the integrity of both decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: And so he asked that the bill be pulled for now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now looking more deeply at the problem with Democrats. In the end, how many Democratic votes did you think you had?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: We had somewhere between forty-five and fifty.

MARGARET WARNER: And to what degree did organized labor also help defeat you here, in addition to the economic insecurity, how much of it was the political power of organized labor?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: Well, I think that members in this debate tended to vote on the basis of districts, concerns in their districts. I think that most members gave very thoughtful attention to the arguments of both sides, but in the end often it’s local politics that are determinative of a vote, and I think in this case that was acutely so because of this underlying sense of anxiety and insecurity among workers.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you say local politics, what do you mean?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: I think the way in which members relate to their districts and the way in which working people and others in their districts relate to them. Obviously, there are a variety of interest groups that were concerned about the issue, whether it was labor or business or anyone of a number of groups, but I think at the end of the day members tried to do their best to assess the feelings and the pulse of their districts.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it fair to say from the way–as you negotiated with them over this weekend–that in the end they were more sensitive to the concerns of labor members of their districts than say the business communities in their districts?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: It’s hard for me to assess because I don’t want to ascribe any particular motives one way or another, except to say that certainly the issue was hard fought and will continue to be.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now what is the practical effect of this setback in trade terms?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: Fast track is important as a marker of U.S. leadership in the global economy, as well as a means by which certain trade agreements are approved by the Congress. The international community looks on it as engagement by the United States with the world. The immediate impact, I think, with respect to our allies and trading partners will be muted to the extent they view this postponement of the legislation as short-term and temporary, which we believe it to be.

To the extent our trading partners and allies believe that this postponement reflects, instead, an underlying shift in U.S. policy, an inward turning by the United States, then I think we face both very negative consequences, both economically and strategically around the world, economically because we will be excluding ourselves from the variety of preferential trade arrangements bringing up among other countries around our hemisphere and the world; strategically because if you think about the U.S. in the next century, we should be positioned at the center of a constellation of trading and strategic relationships around the world. Economic agreements increasingly are the foundation, the building blocks of those relationships. And without fast track, our ability to enter into those comprehensive economic arrangements is severely hampered.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the Democrats say you could have fast track if you were willing to make promises or assurances that you would include environmental and labor protections in those trade deals. And why is that, why was the president not able to make–give those assurances?

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: We were able to give those assurances. Within the context of the trade agreement, the president could ensure that foreign countries enforced their child labor standards, their overall labor standards, their environmental standards, their health and safety standards, or be subject to trade sanctions under the agreement. In addition to that, the bills retained the president’s full scope of authority to negotiate additional agreements to help raise standards in labor and environmental issues. We felt that the bills had emerged from the Ways & Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee were very good deals preserving all the full range of the United States’ interests, both on the economic side and the labor and environmental sides, while allowing us to make progress on all three.

MARGARET WARNER: But then why wasn’t that enough for the Democratic votes you needed? They obviously wanted more in that regard.

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: I think that a number of members wanted trade agreements to be the vehicle by which labor and environmental standards globally would actually be raised to U.S. levels.

MARGARET WARNER: And then–

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: To U.S. levels and then subject to trade sanctions. And the difficulty with that approach is really twofold: First off, foreign countries are not going to yet let U.S. Congress legislate their labor and environmental standards any more than we would let a foreign country legislate ours, and second of all, our market is already the most major open market in the world. We would be saying to foreign countries for the privilege of buying more of our goods you must raise our labor and environmental standards. That’s not a deal our trading partners are going to take.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well thank you very much, Ambassador.

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: Thank you.