It was a rather telling moment in Washington: President Bush and Democrats have yet to come to terms on Iraq, education, or immigration, but last week they struck a deal on at least one hot-button topic – trade. So what's up with that?
Perhaps such refreshing political camaraderie arises because the goal of open trade has long enjoyed strong bipartisan backing in the nation's capital.
Americans were reminded this week of trade's historic role in the nation's amazing economic growth with the 400th commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English trading colony. When the United States signs a free-trade agreement with countries, US exports rise substantially to those countries, creating American jobs.
The compromise on trade policy was chiseled out between the White House and key Democratic leaders despite the election last November of many anti-free-trade Democrats. But the mere fact that Democrats are now in charge forced Mr. Bush to make his side of the compromise. Now he's partially completing one of his remaining goals as the US chief executive for the next 20 months: keeping the protectionist wolf away from the US open-trade door.
The deal signals a softer White House willing to concede on hard issues. But it's also a recognition that Democrats, too, must give a bit. The art of compromise may not yet be lost in Washington's man-the-barricades polarization.
In the deal, Democrats, led by Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, promised to give a green light to passing two pending free-trade agreements with Peru and Panama – although actually delivering the Democratic caucus remains.
Bush, in turn, agreed to add provisions in pending and future trade agreements that would attempt to force US trading partners to follow international standards on labor rights and environmental protection.
The key provision is the one on worker rights. It calls for abolition of child labor and forced labor, a right to collective bargaining, and freedom of association for workers. If enforced – and that remains in doubt – they would have the effect of raising foreign wages and then perhaps reducing the flow of US jobs overseas. Wages in nations such as China or Bangladesh, however, will not rise to US levels anytime soon.
The deal also comes up short in promising Democratic support for two other pending trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea. Each of those has its peculiar snags for some critics in Congress.
Most of all, this political bargain does not give renewed approval for the president's authority to negotiate trade agreements that would allow only a yes-or-no vote on them in Congress. That "fast-track" authority, which expires in June, is essential for this and the next president if the US is to complete talks on a stalled global trade deal (the "Doha round") and individual-country agreements.
But the compromise, endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gives hope of future deals on trade policy. These will be more of a test for Democrats than Republicans on whether closing the door on open trade is really an option to resolve the problems of a globalized economy.
So far, an open door generally remains a shut case.