A tousle-haired little girl nibbles on a strawberry as a television announcer intones: What is fast track? Special powers to rush through flawed trade deals like NAFTA, stripping Congress of the right to fix them. Since NAFTA: hundreds of thousands of American jobs exported. More pollution along our border. Tainted food on our shelves.
our border. Tainted food on our shelves.
It and may the be rather a stretch esoteric to link subject strawberries of President Bill Clinton’s bid for so-called fasttrack authority to negotiate international trade agreements. But the campaign his opponents launched last week does exactly that. The AFL-CIO labor federation spent $1.4 million to broadcast a 30-second TV spot in 11 states that condemns continental free trade for allowing tainted fruit from Mexico to enter the United States more easily. Fast track may be a classic MEGO (my eyes glaze over) issue for most Americans. But it is shaping up as the most hotly fought political contest of the fall—and one that could directly affect an array of Canadian interests.
At first glance, what Clinton is seeking seems straightforward: the power to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries without fear that they will be amended later by the U.S. Congress. Under fast track, Congress would be able only to approve or reject a proposed agreement, but not amend it. Clinton argues that other countries will not bargain in earnest if they believe Congress will try to win additional concessions from them before approving a deal. Presidents had that authority from 1974 to 1994—but Clinton let it lapse because he did not want a fight on the issue inside his own Democratic party as the 1996 presidential election neared. Now, as he seeks to extend free trade to Chile and eventually to the rest of the Americas, the President wants Congress to give him the power back. It is, he argued as he launched his campaign at the White House, a choice between keeping the United States “at the pinnacle of its influence” or becoming “withdrawn from the world.”
In fact, the fast-track debate has become both a replay of the 1993 battle over the North American Free T rade Agreement with Canada and Mexico—and an early taste of the next presidential election. By now the arguments are all too familiar to both Americans and Canadians. Clinton, backed by big business and most Republicans, argues that expanding global trade is essential to keeping the U.S. economy booming. On the other
side, the labor movement argues now—as it did four years ago—that trade deals with low-wage countries hurt American workers and undermine health and environmental standards (hence the tainted Mexican strawberries). Most Democrats in Congress are lined up with labor, and therein lies another subplot in the complicated faceoff. Richard Gephardt, the Missouri congress-
man who leads Democrats in the House of Representatives, is the most prominent opponent of free trade and fast track, while Vice-President Al Gore is a strong supporter. Most observers predict a battle between Gephardt and Gore to succeed Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee in the year 2000—making the fast-track fight the first round of their struggle.
The danger for Canada is that in the rush to secure support in Congress by the time it adjourns in November, Clinton may promise to take a tougher line in areas where American interests feel pinched. The U.S. dairy, poultry and wheat industries, for example, have standing complaints against Canadian producers. Canadian trade officials fear the administration will try to win over undecided members of Congress by pledging action against Canadian interests. That happened
in 1993, when the administration promised to limit the amount of Canadian wheat allowed into the United States in return for the support of congressmen and senators from northern wheat-producing states— and Canadian producers are braced for another assault. “There are going to be a lot of backroom deals to swing votes,” said a Canadian trade official in Washington. “We have to watch that our interests aren’t caught in the squeeze.”
Officially, Canada supports fast track as a signal that the United States wants to remain a leader in expanding global trade. Trade Minister Sergio Marchi even offered at one point to lobby Congress and make speeches south of the border if that would help Clinton—an idea that several independent experts openly ridicule. The last thing Canada needs, they say, is to stick its fingers in a tangled U.S. domestic dispute.
Unofficially, there is a realization that the current situation suits Canada just fine. As
long as the United States is hamstrung in reaching international trade agreements, countries such as Canada can take advantage by cutting deals with new markets—as Ottawa did last year by negotiating a free trade arrangement with Chile. “Canadians are playing this very well,” says Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re exploiting the gap between what the U.S. says it wants, and what it actually does.” Clinton himself held up Canada’s Chilean deal as proof that the United States is falling behind in the race to secure new markets. Now, he lamented, “every major country in this hemisphere has duty-free access to Chilean markets, every economy but one—ours.” The trick for Canada will be to make sure it doesn't get squeezed as the Americans try to close that gap. □
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