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Free hand trade negotiation bad idea

By Dave Carter

Ever since the advent of the automobile, parents have used car keys as a powerful disciplinary tool with their teenagers – keys to the family car are regularly yanked when kids fail to prove their maturity.

It is time to apply that same principle to international trade agreements.

More than a decade ago, President Bush, Sr. asked Congress for the car keys so that he could negotiate a free trade agreement with Canada. Congress gave him the keys in the form of fast track authority. Under fast track, the administration had a free hand to negotiate the trade agreement. Congress agreed to simply accept the proposed agreement on a yes or no vote, without any amendments.

In other words, “Here are the car keys. Have a good time. Try to be home before midnight.” The proposed deal President Bush, Sr. dragged home from Canada opened the borders for a flood of products from the North, and set the tone for a whole series of subsequent agreements.

But Congress acted like a typical, lenient parent. They gave Bush, Sr. the fast track keys again to negotiate the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) agreement. They even gave the keys to President Clinton, who careened around the globe negotiating NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.

Now, we are paying the bills for this reckless behavior. So far this year, our trade deficit with Mexico stands at $8.6 billion. That is small potatoes compared to the $19 billion deficit with Canada; the $19.4 billion deficit with the European Union; and the $24.3 billion deficit with China.

But that’s only part of the story.

The real problem with the current trade agreements negotiated under previous fast track arrangements is that they have compounded an international playing field that is inherently tilted against the United States. Citizens in the United States expect the farmers and ranchers to produce food in a manner that protects the soil and water resources of this country. They want us to pay our hired hands a reasonable wages. They expect us to pay property taxes to support public education. And, they expect us to grow food that is free from harmful chemical residues.

Those are reasonable expectations. The problem comes when we open the gates for imported food produced in a manner that does not meet that criteria.

There is another problem as well. The push into the free trade arena has been driven in large part by the argument that greater international commerce would enhance competition, and would provide consumers with a greater choice in the marketplace. Neither of those arguments holds water. Instead of fostering greater competition, the current global trade rules have compounded the problem of concentration. Corporations now justify each new merger with the argument that they need to consolidate in order to “compete” in the international marketplace.

Meanwhile, consumers looking over the products in a typical supermarket meat case do not have any opportunity to make an informed choice in buying beef produced in the U.S., Argentina or Australia. Now, the newest driver in the family, George Bush, Jr., has asked for the keys. He wants fast track authority to negotiate an extension of NAFTA known as the “Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.” It is time for Congress to put its food down and enforce a little discipline.

Any new trade agreement needs to adequately address the problems created by differences in exchange rates between nations. Those agreements should establish enforceable labor standards, and should require our trading partners to meet our standards in terms of environmental protection, and in terms of pesticide use. And, those agreements should contain stiff enforceable penalties on dumping practices.

Until the kids at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. prove themselves capable of handling their responsibilities to farmers, ranchers, workers and consumers, Congress needs to exert a little discipline. After all, it has worked on teenagers for years.