GATT Serious

PRESIDENT Clinton is in Asia this week, finding the climate, both natural and political, considerably warmer than back home. The main event is a summit tomorrow of 18 Pacific Rim countries, known as the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Washington's aim is to begin the process of opening up trade within the region.

It's a politically unexciting subject, but important to the economic future of the United States. Trade, unless it involves a highly visible issue like Japanese auto imports, is usually the turf of policy wonks only. The rest of us, even the politicos, find our eyes glazing over in discussions about tariff ``harmonization.''

That may change dramatically when the lame-duck Congress reconvenes after Thanksgiving to consider ratifying GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The agreement, if ratified, would take effect Jan. 1. It creates a World Trade Organization (WTO) to oversee the lowering of trade barriers between countries. A study released last week by GATT officials showed that the US stands to gain $122 billion per year from the agreement, double the previous estimate. (The 12-nation European Union would benefit by $164 billion per year; Japan by $27 billion annually.)

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The agreement among 123 nations is the result of years of negotiations under Presidents Reagan, Bush, and now Clinton. It fits squarely into the centrist philosophies within both parties which advocate free trade. What little genuine opposition there has been has come from the political left (organized labor worried about cheaper foreign goods) and from those concerned that the US would give up a measure of its sovereignty to the WTO. Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, a Democrat, held up passage of the bill earlier this fall in an attempt to protect the textile industry in his state. All these concerns need to be, and can be, answered during the GATT debate.

The newly energized GOP has a chance to show it is more interested in passing good legislation than in political grandstanding if it helps to ratify the GATT by Dec. 2, as the president has asked. Last summer, the Heritage Foundation recommended passage of GATT as part of the platform for conservative candidates. Now some Republican leaders have expressed concern over details of the agreement or a desire to study it further before committing. But they have also pledged to cooperate with the president when he is headed in the right direction. On this bill, he is.

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