BY saying ``yes'' last week to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Congress has taken a step in the right direction.
The United States had a choice to lead (toward free trade and worldwide economic progress) or get out of the way of booming international trade. Wisely, the US chose to lead.
The GATT will reduce tariffs around the world by more than $700 billion over the next decade. Efficient producers of goods and services will find world markets more open; they will prosper and employ more workers. Inefficient, protected industries will be forced toward becoming world class or risk losing their customers. Even if net gains for US industries are much more modest than the rosiest predictions, they are likely to be substantial. As Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, an early doubter on GATT, said, ``We [the US] are the big beneficiaries, any way you cut it.''
The wide margins of victory showed that members in both parties overwhelmingly had come to the same conclusion. The House passed the measure 288 to 146, a 2-to-1 ratio; the Senate followed with a 72 to 28 vote, with exactly 76 percent of both Democrats and Republicans in favor. Whether this ``Spirit of 76 Percent'' is a harbinger of bipartisan cooperation in the new Congress remains to be seen. President Clinton said he hoped that it would be. The vote did suggest that on issues where broad bipartisan agreement exists, petty political infighting need not develop.
``Yes'' to the GATT means that the next Congress must address the issues of creating a better-educated work force. Job training, in particular, is needed as the US economy transforms itself as part of a freer world market. Labor Secretary Robert Reich wants tax breaks that would encourage workers to get training, offering it as an alternative to the Republicans' proposed $500-per-child tax relief. Congressional Democrats may suggest a voucher plan as a ``GI bill for American workers.''
GATT critics on both the left and right (protectionist Democrats; isolationist Republicans) will try to make lawmakers pay a political price for backing free trade. Ross Perot or others may try to leverage unfounded fears of the GATT into a third-party bid. Since a recent poll showed 63 percent of Americans felt they didn't know enough about GATT to hold an opinion, there is a big audience to be wooed and won.
The GATT may be a done deal, but it still could reap a political whirlwind.