Given up for dead earlier this year, the fight to restore President Clinton's trade negotiating authority has a pulse after all.
Congressional Democrats put ''fast track'' in a coma last November, and no one, including Mr. Clinton, has been anxious to revive such a controversial issue in a congressional election year. But now House Speaker Newt Gingrich, joined by a group of export-conscious farm-state lawmakers, has pushed fast track back into focus. Even if new trade authority remains a long shot this year, supporters in the administration and Congress have a chance now to build momentum, hone their arguments and prepare for an all-out campaign early next year.Fast-track authority allows a president to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a straight ''yes or no'' vote, without killer amendments. Indeed, fast track has become virtually a prerequisite for serious trade negotiations. Consider, for example, a pending international trade agreement to end subsidies to shipbuilders: It was negotiated in 1994 without fast-track authority and the pact has been languishing in Congress ever since, bogged down by nettlesome amendments.
Mr. Clinton pushed hard for fast track last year, but after a late, fumbling start, and with massive opposition from unions and protectionist Democrats in Congress, the proposal was pulled from the House floor. Mr. Clinton still wants fast track, but essentially believes the time isn't right, with an election coming.
Clearly, though, the dynamics of fast track are beginning to change. Earlier this month, Mr. Gingrich said he plans a vote on fast track before the election. While this may have been a political tactic by the speaker - he seems interested in showcasing the differences between free-trade Republicans and trade-leery Democrats - Mr. Gingrich personally supports fast track and would like to see it approved. Whether the vote will actually occur is another question.
Certainly, many farm state lawmakers would like to see a fast-track vote. Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska recently called for a vote before the August congressional recess, and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana is planning to introduce a new fast-track bill with special provisions for farmers.
Farmers want fast track because it promises to open new markets to U.S. goods; agricultural products already are one of the biggest U.S. exports, and American farmers fare well internationally. Indeed, U.S. growers own roughly 80 percent of the world corn market, 40 percent of the wheat market and have big shares of many others.
But farm profits have been declining lately as world crop prices have fallen and government subsidies have been reduced. The Asian financial crisis also has curbed U.S. exports, increasing the need, farmers say, for new negotiations.
Many in Congress have been listening. Rep. Bob Smith, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has suggested he could get as many as 30 new votes for fast track if the Clinton administration agrees to increased congressional oversight of farm issues during negotiations. Besides support from Mr. Gingrich, Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott also has hinted he would like to see a vote soon.
None of this will make the fast track fight easy. Unions are still strongly opposed, and since union money finances many Democratic congressional campaigns, it's hard to imagine many Democrats backing fast track.
But even if this political judgment is correct, the administration should not ignore the renewed interest in trade authority. Supporters never made a convincing case for fast track last year. Three points should be stressed this time. First, the next planned set of global trade talks will focus on agriculture and services, two areas where the United States shines. Second, other countries are moving ahead with their own trade agreements, leaving the United States on the sidelines. Finally, new trade negotiating authority could build on the market reforms already under way in Asia because of the financial crisis there.