Keep the 'Fast Track' Honest

AS negotiators from Mexico, Canada, and the United States met recently to formulate strategy for reaching a North American Free Trade Agreement, there is no doubt that negotiations are speeding along on the fastest of tracks. There is speculation that an agreement may be reached late this year. The negotiators' second ministerial meeting held earlier in Seattle signals the start of actual negotiations.The main question is whether the fast track leads in the right direction for concluding a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that is in the public interest. The administration has offered very little substantive information about the US starting gambit. Congress as a whole has so far made few demands to audit the process and defend the public's stakes in the outcome. More attention needs to be given these negotiations now, while they are in their early stages, to avoid confrontations that might arise later if the White House and Congress don't agree. Both the House and Senate voted by wide margins to extend President Bush's "fast track" negotiating authority, and for good reason. As stated by President Bush in a May letter to congressional leaders, "I requested an extension of fast track so that we could continue to realize increased economic growth and the other benefits of expanded trade." However, he also added the caveat that, "if Congress is not satisfied, it retains the unqualified right to reject whatever is negotiated." Ideally, the approval of fast track should amount to a contract between the executive branch and Congress. In exchange for being granted latitude in negotiating the treaty, the president and his trade representative are supposed to be especially sensitive to concerns expressed by the legislative branch and keep Congress informed of developments to insure that the final agreement is one Congress can support. This mutual understanding has not materialized. There has been talk in Congress about organizing "watchdog" groups to monitor the negotiations and a flurry of letters have been sent to various federal agencies by concerned legislators trying to assess the impact of an agreement. But there has been little organized scrutiny. The administration, promising right before the fast track approval vote to consult with Congress, has yet to deliver on substantive issues. Officials have been receptive to inquiries, but have offered information about form rather than substance, and have so far not encouraged any debate over possible terms of an accord. For example, environmentalists, the most credible opponents of an unregulated NAFTA, were unable to contribute to the negotiating position during most of the summer due to delays in promised appointments to official advisory groups. Despite (or perhaps because of) this lack of formal congressional monitoring, the negotiations are speeding along ahead of schedule. Initial expectations that the process would take a full year are being revised, with optimists now predicting that a document will be ready by the end of the year. The administration plans to open formal talks on the treaty text next month. Public doubts regarding the free trade negotiations with Mexico which still merit more attention include the following: the environmental impact of any agreement, the effect on wages and employment for US workers, and the nature of "rules of origin" which would regulate the flow of foreign imports from a third country through Mexico to the US. The optimal moment to impress these concerns upon the negotiations and keep the process honest is now, before the US position is finalized. There is a lot at stake for North Americans of all three countries, but particularly for residents of the US-Mexico border region, which obviously has a lot to gain economically from a well-conceived NAFTA. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's Institutionalized Party of the Revolution (PRI) had much more at risk than any politicos to the North. Salinas has gambled much of his prestige on integration with the US and Canada, which would fortify the country's recent economic opening and assure a ne eded flow of foreign investment and funds. Any resulting prosperity would be especially notable in Mexico's industrial north, where the PRI's political opposition has traditionally been strongest. The negotiations could also have hemispheric implications relating to Bush's grand design for free trade throughout the Americas. A dozen Latin American nations have signed framework agreements with the US to demonstrate their intentions of reducing trade barriers (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay signed theirs just last month). However, the successes thus far of Bush's Enterprise for the Americas have been mainly rhetorical, and the Latin Americans are awaiting the outcome of the US-Mexico-Canada negotiations to see what kinds of terms they might expect. Over the coming weeks, there will be public hearings and other solicitations of public input on possible contents of the NAFTA. But only Congress, with its final say over the trade treaty, has any real leverage to force administration accountability before manana, when it will be too late. Congress must act promptly to insure that negotiations are on the right track and that it is paved with more than good intentions.

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