Take the Fast-Track Trade Debate to Middle America

Bruce Stokes is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

The Clinton administration's quest to gain fast-track authority in trade negotiations promises to be autumn's major congressional battle. But it will be a great mistake if the fast-track debate is confined to Capitol Hill. President Bill Clinton should use this opportunity to launch a major national dialogue about how he intends to use this new trade authority, to paint a vision of what he thinks the globalization of the U.S. economy will mean for average Americans in the 21st century and to show what he intends to do to help those who may be victims of expanded trade.

Fast track, long available to previous presidents, facilitates international trade agreements because it commits Congress to an up-or-down vote on such deals. The impending fight over such negotiating authority has already been billed as a testing ground for the presidential ambitions of Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt. It is also seen as an opportunity for newly emboldened organized labor to test its muscle after the Teamsters' success in the United Parcel Service strike.

But such characterizations cast the drama as just another political sideshow, not as a preview of the economy to come. Over the next few weeks, the White House will compound the problem by attempting to stifle congressional debate, contending that the president needs fast-track authority to preserve and extend U.S. leadership in the world.

That may well be true. But first, the president should exercise some leadership at home by frankly discussing with Americans the emerging U.S. economy, warts and all. Rarely has history given a president a better environment to take such a risk. Fewer than one in 20 Americans are unemployed. Exports are booming. And Clinton enjoys a 63% approval rating, according to a Times poll.

Globalization has made America richer. But workers who lose their jobs because of imports experience longer periods of unemployment and suffer larger permanent losses in earnings than those who are jobless because of other shifts in the economy. Economists say trade has little to do with these problems. But the public doesn't believe it. And support for fast track, trade and globalization has suffered as a result.

Clinton can lead the fast-track debate by taking the initiative on three fronts:

* Use the bully pulpit of the White House to launch a national dialogue on the implications of globalization for the American people. Better than any of his predecessors, Clinton intuitively understands the borderless nature of the emerging economy and has the skills to communicate a vision of that future to voters. But he must do more than feel their pain. He must be willing to admit that globalization will create both winners and losers, and that there are no easy solutions for the problems of the losers.

* Follow up words with action. To remain globally competitive and to retain public support for an open trading system, U.S. society needs a new social compact. In return for exposing workers to the insecurities of global competition, Washington and U.S. business must help American workers obtain the skills they need to prosper in the new international economy. The Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, established to help workers hurt by imports, is up for renewal in 1998. It is currently little more than extended unemployment insurance. The president should pledge to fix TAA by expanding it into a comprehensive worker-retraining program for all who need it. And the private sector should be involved. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton proposed that all firms be required to invest up to 1.5% of their payroll in training. The proposal was attractive when the president needed the public's votes. Why not now?

* Launch aggressive trade actions to open foreign markets. Americans need reassurance that the president will look out for U.S. interests in this new, uncertain world. Polls show that the public backed Clinton's 1995 confrontation with Tokyo over access to the Japanese auto market. The White House needs to demonstrate again that advocates of free trade are not patsies.

The political pulse takers in the West Wing of the White House have cautioned the president against a wide-ranging public debate on globalization. They worry that wrestling with the hard choices posed by the internationalization of the economy will only stir up voter anxiety, hurting the administration's popularity. At the same time, congressional budget cutters are loath to spend more on retraining. It's easier for business to draw down the pool of available skilled workers, rather than hurt the bottom line by adding to it. And trade theologians fret that new U.S. assertiveness abroad will generate friction but produce few results.

Such shortsighted objections miss the point. With fast track likely to pass Congress, it's the test of "great" presidents to look beyond the immediate legislative struggle to spend their political capital to help the nation come to grips with its future. Who else is better positioned to do this than President Clinton. And if not now, when?

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