Sen. John F. Kerry said Monday he would more aggressively enforce trade agreements than the Bush administration, without reversing the nation’s commitment to promoting free international commerce.
During a stop here, he also pledged to crack down on currency manipulation by China and Japan.
Kerry said his stance would give voters a clear choice in comparison with President Bush, whom he accused of being “asleep at the wheel” in protecting U.S. jobs from migrating.
At a stop later in the day in Pennsylvania, he said: “I am going to stand up for the American worker and fight to have the American worker have an even playing field to compete on.”
Experts said the Kerry proposals with the greatest potential benefit to U.S. manufacturers -- pushing Asian nations to revalue their currencies and imposing trade sanctions unilaterally without waiting for the World Trade Organization to act -- could be hardest to pull off.
Currency valuation is generally considered a sovereign matter, not subject to external oversight. And Kerry’s proposal to reinstate a process that allowed the United States to impose sanctions on its own could run afoul of the WTO, which acts as an arbiter in such disputes.
Analysts said Kerry’s proposals appeared to be carefully crafted to appeal to key constituencies -- such as small manufacturers and organized labor, which blame NAFTA and China for much of the job loss of recent years -- without straying too far from the pro-trade agenda favored by most of the business community and many centrist Democrats.
The Massachusetts senator staked out his positions at a coal mine in West Virginia, a speech in Wheeling and at a cookware factory in Canonsburg, Pa.
In the Wheeling speech, Kerry outlined steps he said he would take as president “to engage and win in the global economy.”
They included his call for tougher action to get Japan and China to allow their currencies to gain value and stop leaving U.S. exports “at a serious price disadvantage,” his promise for stepped-up enforcement of trade agreements and his plan for giving the U.S. greater latitude to impose trade sanctions.
He also said he would increase the U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs by 50%.
Kerry’s visits to West Virginia and Pennsylvania on Monday will be followed by stops in Ohio and Michigan today and Wednesday. Analysts expect those four states to be closely contested in the Nov. 2 election, and all have lost many manufacturing jobs in recent years.
In making his argument that Bush has not fought hard enough to enforce trade agreements, Kerry said the administration had filed an average of just three complaints annually with the WTO, compared with 11 filed a year from 1995 to 2000 by the Clinton administration.
He also hit Bush for promising, and then failing, to extend tariffs that protected American steel against cheap imports.
“He lost 17 companies, tens of thousands of jobs,” Kerry said in Pennsylvania. “The president went back on a promise.”
Kerry said his plan to increase funding for the U.S. international trade monitoring office would help protect workers rights and limit child labor violations. And he said a new office he proposed under the U.S. trade representative would prevent other nations from “preying on” small and fledgling American businesses.
Trade analysts said Kerry’s most aggressive plan was his proposal to crack down on currency manipulation by China and Japan. China, for instance, pegs the value of the yuan to the dollar at a fixed rate that many U.S. manufacturers argue is too low, boosting its exports by artificially reducing prices.
“The alpha and omega of China’s industrial policy is that currency peg,” said University of Maryland trade economist Peter Morici. “It would have sweeping, systemic consequences for the prices of Chinese exports and the manner in which China does business.”
Stressing his commitment to free trade, Kerry said in Wheeling: “America must always engage in the global economy and we always need to look for new markets to sell our products.”
But he said the federal government needed to work harder to protect U.S. interests.
With that in mind, he proposed reinstating the so-called “Super 301" process that allowed the United States to unilaterally impose trade sanctions when it believed other countries were unfairly restricting U.S. exports.
Under a global trade agreement struck in 1994, the United States agreed to abandon the 301 process and allow the WTO to arbitrate trade disputes. Restoring the process could be deemed a violation of America’s WTO obligations, analysts said.
“It would mean that the United States would act as prosecutor, judge and jury in trade cases,” said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. “What it would say to the world is that we’re going back to unilateralism.”
Republicans sought to sow doubts about Kerry with a full-page advertisement in local newspapers asserting that Kerry frequently had opposed the interests of the coal mining industry. The ad cited his support of the Kyoto treaty to stem global warming and of the Clean Power Act, which would require 90% of mercury emissions to be eliminated by 2008 in coal-burning power plants.
GOP pronouncements repeatedly called Kerry an “environmentalist,” a label the candidate wears proudly but which is anathema to some in the nation’s industrial core.
In rebuttal to the Bush ad, Kerry’s staff said Monday the United Mine Workers had endorsed him. Kerry aides said the union would not have backed him if it feared his policies.
Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.