A Slow Track, for Now

TRADE and politics - always a volatile mixture - are especially combustible in an election year. So it's unfortunate that two major trade negotiations involving the United States are nearing completion in an election year. Because open trade is such an inviting target for some politicians, it might be prudent for the White House to wait until after the November elections to submit any new trade treaties to Congress for approval.

Advocates of free trade have hoped that 1992 would see congressional ratification of a major agreement among the 108 nations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and also of a North American free trade agreement (NAFTA) among the US, Mexico, and Canada. Both treaties would lower tariffs and other trade barriers and accelerate the movement of goods, services, labor, and capital in international commerce. Economic growth would be, in the long run, a big winner. Free trade also broadens cons umer choice and lowers prices.

In the nearer term, though, the opening of commercial borders can work hardships: It costs jobs in previously protected industries, and displaced workers have to be retrained, sometimes for lower-paying jobs.

At a time when the US is dispirited by recession, when many American industries have permanently eliminated thousands of jobs in order to become more competitive, and when economic competition between the US and Japan is intensifying, it's not surprising that protectionist war cries are rising. Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown has struck a responsive chord with his vows to protect American jobs against Mexican competition, and Republican candidate Pat Buchanan has been beating the drums for "America First."

Both President Bush and Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton have been staunch in their support of free trade. They mustn't waver under political pressure. Mr. Clinton, in particular, must resist softening his opposition to protectionism in order to ward off the Brown insurgency. The next president needs to come out of the election with a mandate to complete, if still necessary, the arduous negotiations on the GATT and NAFTA treaties and to push them through Congress.

Under the legislation passed by Congress last year, the president (whether Bush or a successor) still has almost a year in which to receive "fast track" consideration of the two treaties. Although there is, in waiting, some potential risk that US support for the treaties will erode, that risk is probably outweighed by the danger of allowing congressional debate on the treaties to become mixed up in election politics.

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