AFTER weeks of strenuous public debate over the effects of a proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico, Congress last week voted to preserve the president's ``fast track'' authority to negotiate trade pacts. Trade agreements placed on the fast track receive expedited review by Congress, which must vote on such agreements without amending them. The fast-track approvals in both houses were victories for the Bush administration and free-trade advocates over organized labor and some environmentalists. But the fast-track fight was, in a sense, just talk about talks. Now come the hard, substantive trade negotiations themselves.
While public attention during the fast-track skirmish focused mainly on US trade with Mexico, the president's renewed authority also applies to other trade negotiations, notably ongoing global trade talks under the auspices of the 108-member General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). As it gears up for talks with Mexico, the administration should also press vigorously for a satisfactory conclusion to GATT's Uruguay Round, begun in 1986.
The Uruguay Round has had an ambitious agenda. Besides continuing GATT's 40 years of progress in lowering tariffs, the current talks have aimed to achieve major liberalization in multilateral trade policies on agriculture, textiles, services like banking and insurance, intellectual-property rights such as patents and copyrights (services and intellectual property aren't presently covered by GATT), and dispute-resolution mechanisms.
The multilateral talks nearly collapsed late last year when European farmers resisted requested changes in their price supports and export subsidies. But enough progress has been made on those issues to breathe life back into the negotiations.
With the growing interest in regional trading blocs around the world, an overarching GATT accord is more important than ever, to prevent such blocs from developing into protectionist alliances. Back on the fast track, the Bush administration should push the pedal to the metal on GATT.