Bush warns against trade protectionism

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

President Bush decried the risk of “a new kind of protectionism” Monday, saying that by failing to negotiate new trade agreements, the United States was losing an opportunity to protect workers and the environment around the world.

In a speech that took his argument for expanded trade to a new level, Bush said that, “Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative.

“Trade creates jobs for the unemployed. When we negotiate for open markets, we are providing new hope for the world’s poor. And when we promote open trade, we are promoting political freedom,” he said.

Even before he spoke, Bush’s address prompted a gentle, bipartisan reminder on the trade issue from 61 senators. In a letter, they warned the president that in his push to negotiate new trade agreements, he must be wary of undercutting such trade laws as those protecting American industry and workers from unfair foreign competition.

In a nine-minute speech at the State Department, Bush told approximately 300 business people assembled by the Council of the Americas that rather than leaving workers and the environment open to exploitation, as critics of more open trade fear, greater commerce would improve conditions by bringing with it greater prosperity.

‘By failing to make the case for trade, we’ve allowed a new kind of protectionism to appear in this country,” he said. “It talks of workers, while it opposes a major source of new jobs. It talks of the environment, while opposing the wealth-creating policies that will pay for clean air and water in developing nations.”

The president’s speech at the State Department reflected the administration’s heightened attention to trade this spring. Bush is planning to send Congress an outline of his trade agenda later this week.

Last month, before the trade-oriented Summit of the Americas met in Quebec, the president vowed to fight intensely for the right to negotiate a hemisphere-wide trade accord without congressional interference.

President Clinton failed in 1998 to gain congressional support of what was then called fast-track authority, which the Bush administration has labeled trade promotion authority.

The expanded authority gives a president congressional approval to negotiate a trade pact that the House and Senate can approve or reject, but cannot modify. It is considered extremely important because it gives negotiating partners assurance that when they complete an agreement with the president’s representatives, Congress will not be able to rewrite it.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, the United States completed agreements to make commerce with Canada and Mexico subject to virtually no barriers, and played a central role in a pact that overhauled the global rules of trade.

But since then, the United States has retrenched, and a trade pact with Chile remains in the distance — on this administration’s agenda, as it was on Clinton’s, but its prospects uncertain.

Critics argue that free-trade provisions can be used as obstacles to environmentalists seeking to prohibit trade in goods manufactured at the expense of the environment. And, they say, the same rules can be used to turn aside complaints that foreign factories are exploiting workers.