Washington's trade policy community has been paralyzed by the upcoming election. Even the most ideological free traders recognize that public sentiment has increasingly grown cold towards new trade agreements. Agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement have been shelved, for the moment, by the Bush Administration, because of fear that the votes in Congress just won't be there if it were to be brought up during an election year.
There is, of course, a raging debate on what trade agreements should look like. During this year's Democratic primaries, the candidates were unified in their belief that future trade agreements should address not only traditional issues such as tariffs, but must recognize that competition in today's world involves much, much more. All across the board, the candidates argued for the inclusion of labor and environmental issues in the core text of trade agreements. They agreed that, to be successful, trade agreements must include basic standards and rules for competition or else we will continue the "race to the bottom" that many fear.
This model is achievable, with a President who chooses to accept and advocate a broader approach to trade. President Clinton, in the closing days of his Administration, reached a free trade agreement between the United States and Jordan that included, for the first time, recognition of the importance of labor and environmental issues in the core text of the agreement and the need for these provisions to be enforceable. Thus, on the books, is an agreement reached between two sovereign countries that updates our trade policy.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration rejected that model, and the success that had been achieved. They have treated the Jordan model as a ceiling on what should be included in trade agreements, rather than a floor. And, they are doing everything possible to make sure that they don't embrace the same model.
The President's people have been engaged in a rush to negotiate new trade agreements that limit the issues that can be addressed. In so doing, they are also limiting the ability of trade agreements to promote progress and growth with equity. Their approach has been rejected at the World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico and at the most recent Free Trade Agreement for the Americas Summit in Miami, Florida. Clearly, other nations share the view of many of our own citizens that the status quo approach to trade must be rejected.
While the debate about what course of action we should pursue on trade policy takes place, there is real progress that could be achieved in restoring public faith in expanding trade. For the Bush Administration, success appears to be the number of trade agreements that are signed. For the American people, their measure of success is most often gauged by exports and job creation. Common sense? Yes, but it appears to be lost on the Bush Administration.
Senator Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has offered an important idea that merits real support – a 120-day moratorium on new trade agreements. During this period, a top-to-bottom review of our trade policies should be undertaken with an eye towards results. And results should be measured in terms of opening markets, creating wealth and jobs – not only here at home, but around the world.
The first step in the process must be a review of what agreements have been signed, and what the expected and/or promised results were. Are we monitoring and enforcing trade agreements sufficiently to ensure that our trading partners are living up to the promises they made? Is our government supporting our farmers, workers and businesses in ensuring that the proper trade infrastructure is in place to ensure that, once markets are opened, they can take advantage of the opportunities?
But, we don't have to wait for Senator Kerry's inauguration to help build confidence in our nation's trade policy and our negotiators. We can begin to take action by targeting the barriers that have been placed in front of our competitive exports. Earlier this month, the United States Trade Representative's office published, as is required by law, the annual National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers (NTE Report). It's an indictment of the protectionist and predatory practices of our trading partners. It's also an indictment of the Bush Administration's failure to fight for our rights and interests.
The NTE Report is a catalog, country-by-country, of the barriers to our products. From Angolan customs barriers to insufficient intellectual property protection in Vietnam, the NTE Report reads like a travelogue of worldwide protectionist and predatory trade practices. While our government certainly has limited resources to take on every one of these barriers, many of the worst barriers – those that cost us the most jobs and economic opportunities — appear in the Report year after year.
Some Democrats in Congress, led by Representatives Rangel, Pelosi and Levin in the House and Senator Corzine in the Senate, are calling for action now. They are advocating the reenactment of a provision of law that would attack the most egregious trade barriers. Built on a provision in the 1988 Trade Act that was allowed to lapse, their efforts are long overdue.
Action doesn't have to wait for new laws. Some of the tools already exist to take action. As part of the accession of China to the WTO, we were given the right to address surges in imports that disrupt our market – a provision known as Section 421. On three occasions the International Trade Commission voted to provide relief to the domestic industry from a flood of Chinese imports. In each of those cases, President Bush refused to side with our own industry. This is but one example of a flawed enforcement policy.
During the Clinton Administration, a rising economy allowed policymakers to neglect the issue of trade enforcement. But, at a time when our nation has a huge jobs deficit as a result of the Bush economic program, we simply can't afford to allow business-as-usual to suffice. Enforcement must become the centerpiece of our trade policy – for the good of our country and to restore the public's faith in embracing the world economy.
It's time to enforce trade agreements, not simply negotiate new ones. It's not the quantity of trade agreements that matters, but their quality – their results.
Michael Wessel is a former member of the Federal Trade Deficit Review Commission and a current member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.