The Ill-fated Vietnam Trade Bill

Smart Trade Policy Begins with Smart Process

The United States must recommit to a process-oriented, positive, and progressive policy that promotes trade for the common good.

President Bush traveled to Vietnam over the weekend to attend an Asian economic summit designed to improve relations through shared prosperity. Vietnam will soon become the 150th member of the World Trade Organization, and the president had hoped to arrive with a trade bill in hand granting this resilient Southeast Asian nation the status of a regular U.S. trading partner. But the U.S. House of Representatives last week stunned observers at home and abroad by withdrawing the Permanent Normal Trade Relations bill, leaving President Bush empty-handed on the tarmac.

The regrettable delay in passage of Vietnam PNTR reflects a rejection of the consistent disregard shown by the outgoing House leadership and the administration for proper process in trade policymaking. One version of the bill enjoyed robust bipartisan backing, but dozens of House members from both parties last week suddenly withdrew their support. Why?

Speaker Dennis Hastert and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas rushed a different version of the bill—unapproved by Thomas’ committee—to a floor vote under special rules, typically reserved for non-controversial legislation, without adequate consultation, openness, or debate. The administration also showed disregard for proper consultation when it cut a private deal on a textile antidumping measure with Sens. Dole and Graham, much to the dismay of fellow Senators from both parties.

But this is hardly the first time that trade legislation has been marred by a questionable process. The DR-CAFTA agreement passed on the House floor last year by a razor-thin margin of two votes after a flurry of strong-arm lobbying, untidy last-minute compromises, and almost an hour of voting in violation of the allotted 15-minute time limit. The Bush administration has also ignored key congressional input on trade pacts signed with Oman, Peru, and other nations, prompting pro-trade lawmakers from both parties to oppose agreements that they would otherwise support.

The New York Times reported that the Vietnam vote “seemed to be a sign that whatever consensus had existed on free trade bills in the last few years was also starting to crumble.” For bipartisan consensus on this thorny issue to be resurrected, the trade policymaking process must be collaborative and creative rather than closed-door and close-minded.

Congress and the White House must recommit to a process-oriented, positive, and progressive policy that promotes trade for the common good. Such policy would make trade fair for all—fair for workers, businesses, farmers, and consumers in the United States, and fair for our counterparts around the world.

Trade policy should create commercially meaningful opportunities and contribute to equitable economic growth and sustainable development at home and abroad. It should recognize the long-term value of cooperation with developing countries to improve labor rights and the environment. And it should also elevate the national and global common good above narrow special interests.

A Washington Post editorial observed on Friday that the United States has abdicated its historic role in building a more prosperous and inclusive global economy. By promoting trade for the common good—spreading the benefits of globalization more broadly at home, in Vietnam, and around the world—the United States can once again show itself to be a responsible and responsive global economic citizen.

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