WASHINGTON — TROUBLED by opposition in Congress to the biggest trade deal in history, the Clinton administration is working hard to highlight the benefits of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and to demystify its enforcer, the World Trade Organization (WTO).
One result of the GATT's Uruguay Round negotiations, completed just months ago after seven years of protracted talks, was to empower a new global body, the WTO, to enforce trade rules.
With only a few months left in Congress's 1994 calendar, the White House is pressed to secure Capitol Hill's approval for the trade accord before the WTO comes into effect in January 1995.
But some US lawmakers fear that the WTO will be dominated by developing countries hostile to United States interests and that its role as arbiter will step on US sovereignty by undermining Washington's ability to punish recalcitrant trade partners.
``Some protectionists have chosen to focus attention on the WTO and to portray it as a sinister new international bureaucracy, infringing on US sovereignty, dominated by `third world dictatorships,' and motivated by anti-free-market philosophy,'' says Joe Cobb, former chief economist for the Senate Republican Policy Committee and a fellow in economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Such concerns arise because all WTO members - equally represented - will meet every two years and select a chief administrator. The WTO's task is to resolve conflicts according to proscribed and transparent rules. It cannot take action outside the scope of what was agreed to under the Uruguay Round.
Yet the sovereignty scare has drawn a populist response from disparate groups. Yesterday, consumer advocate Ralph Nader joined forces with conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to oppose the WTO, ``because it would be able to overrule both state laws and the United States Constitution.''
At a Monitor breakfast on Friday, US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor expressed amazement that the issue had any ``political resonance in this country.'' The WTO is ``more protective of US sovereignty than the current GATT agreement, which has operated by consensus for 47 years'' but has no specific mandate. ``But WTO does,'' he says.
``Debate to the contrary has no factual foundation,'' Mr. Kantor says. Putting aside partisan politics, he points to conservative Republicans as his allies. ``[House Minority Whip Newt] Gingrich indicated no de jure problem with the agreement.'' And Kantor counts groups like the Heritage Foundation - ``hardly a bastion of liberal thought'' - among the administration's steadfast supporters.
Worry at the White House about GATT's passage has been steadily building for the past several weeks, Cobb says. With good reason, he adds, given the continuing strength of the ``NAFTA populist forces that are out there - they are now ready to shoot at the sure target.''
NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed by Congress last year after strong lobbying by Clinton.
The administration is intent on removing the GATT trade agreement from the congressional firing range.
In recent days, the US Treasury and Commerce Departments released studies that are part of an orchestrated effort to push the trade pact through Congress.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen unveiled last week an assessment that GATT will produce a net tax cut for US consumers and a tax cut for the broader international trading community - a total of roughly $750 billion over the next 10 years. ``There are many benefits from the Uruguay Round: lower taxes on imports and on our goods sold abroad, new jobs at home, and higher incomes for American families - collectively a compelling argument for its ratification.''
Of his own study, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown says that all 50 states will see ``expanding market opportunities abroad.'' Thirty-two states realized ``increased export sales of merchandise by $1 billion or more'' during the past seven years. ``Clearly, GATT is a major economic plan for long-term US economic growth and stability,'' Secretary Brown says.
While other nations, like the US, may measure their own future gains from the new global trade accord, they are no less concerned about how the new rules governing international commerce will be enforced.
``Its always fascinating that people think we're the only ones in the world concerned about sovereignty,'' Kantor says. ``I've sat in these interminable meetings [with trade negotiators] for 18 months, and the first thing on their minds has been sovereignty.''