NEW YORK - Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans warned Monday that the United States risks falling behind other nations if Congress does not give President Bush broad authority to negotiate international trade agreements. 'We have to get off the sidelines and back into the game,' Evans told a luncheon sponsored by the Business Council for International Understanding.
Evans noted that there are more than 130 preferential-trade agreements in the world today, and the U.S. belongs to only two - the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. bilateral pact with Israel.Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, have indicated that they will mark-up legislation giving the president trade-promotion authority before the end of the summer, Evans said. 'We hope to see a final, and successful, vote before the end of the year,' he said.
Trade-promotion authority - formerly called fast-track authority -entitles the president to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without any opportunity to amend the deals.
President Bill Clinton was never able to win renewal of that authority after it lapsed in 1994 because Democrats and Republicans could not agree as to whether trade should be linked to environmental and labor standards. Democrats said they should be linked, while the Republicans said no.
'The real connection between trade, labor and the environment is that increased trade provides rising standards of living and greater freedom, which leads to demands for higher labor and environmental standards,' he said.
Asked at a press conference how aggressively the administration would lobby for trade-promotion authority, Evans answered, 'We will work closely with Congress. We will have lots of consultations with Congress.' He added that he expects 'both sides will feel comfortable' with the measure.
Evans made no mention of China in his prepared remarks, but in response to a question at the press conference, said, 'It's important that China become a member of the World Trade Organization,' but added that the timing of China's entry into the trade body is largely dependent on its decisions. Asked to describe the state of U.S.-China trade relations, he said, 'It's a very cautious period for all of us.'
As for the outcome of an expected vote in Congress on the renewal of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, Evans said, 'We have to wait and see what actions they take over the next several months.'
Approval has been delayed in part by China's reluctance to accept market-opening terms, as well as U.S. insistence on terms that would reduce Beijing's ability to subsidize agriculture.
In calling for passage of trade-promotion authority, Evans asked his business audience to mobilize support for the measure by explaining the benefits of free trade to their companies and their communities.
'Frankly, we have done a very poor job of explaining the tremendous benefits we enjoy in this country thanks to our presence in the world marketplace,' he said. 'We have decades of results confirming the universal rewards of expanding trade and commerce, yet it is still not clear to Americans that increasing trade opportunities is in their best interests.'