Facing Defeat, Clinton Delays Fast-Track Until Next Year
President Clinton Monday announced his administration was pulling the so-called Fast-Track legislation from consideration by Congress in the 1997 session. As the legislation made its way to the House floor, the President could not sway his fellow Democrats to support his proposal for negotiating free trade agreements. The Administration was in overdrive this past weekend trying to convince more Democratic congressmen to vote yes for Fast-Track, finally announcing Monday that it simply could not secure the votes needed for passage. Under Fast-Track, Congress would forfeit its right to amend trade agreements, granting the Clinton Administration the authority to negotiate free trade agreements subject only to a yes or no vote in Congress.
Democratic congressmen were opposed to the President's Fast-Track proposal because it lacked strong labor and environmental provisions they said were necessary to protect U.S. jobs. Without strong labor and environmental trade linkages, opponents warned that trading partners could exploit competitive advantages achieved via cheap labor and weak environmental standards. Organized labor and environmental groups offered strong opposition to the President's proposal, which had called for foisting responsibility for labor and environmental linkage to the World Trade Organization and the International Labor Organization: moves strongly opposed by the developing world.
The Administration said it will reintroduce Fast-Track next year, hinting that some enhancements to labor and environmental provisions might be forthcoming to sway Democratic votes. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) said it is unlikely that Fast-Track would pass in 1998 since it is a Congressional election year. "So it would appear to me that it's dead," Senator Lott said.
Without the broad authority granted by Fast Track, U.S. trade negotiators face a credibility problem with potential trade partners. With talks set to begin this April for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), Latin American countries will most likely not sit down for serious discussion with U.S. negotiators if an agreement is subject to Congressional amendment. Further, Mercosur and Andean Pact countries have made it clear they will not accept labor and environmental provisions within FTAA.
Congress last week also defeated a NAFTA-parity bill for Caribbean countries. The bill would have granted Caribbean basin countries preferential trade treatment comparable to that extended to Mexico under NAFTA. Analysts said that its failure was due in part to its being brought for a vote the same week as Fast-Track, and because the bill required a two-thirds majority for passage, instead of a simple majority.
"Clinton to press Fast Track next year but Lott sees slim chances," INSIDE U.S. TRADE November 11, 1997; "Clinton goes to the wire to save fast-track," FINANCIAL TIMES, November 7, 1997; "House decisively defeats NAFTA-parity program for Caribbean countries," INSIDE U.S. TRADE, November 7, 1997.