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A Faster Track for Fast Track

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Call it a consumer bill of rights or a warning shot for inefficient companies, but a bill finally is moving through Congress that would help the president negotiate more open markets with other nations.

Free trade remains critical not only as an inflation fighter by allowing more inexpensive imports but also in providing the US with strategic security as a global leader. Its huge market of 280 million consumers gives the US as much clout as all its warheads and warships.

And yet since 1994, Congress has denied both a Democratic and then a Republican president the power to negotiate market-opening deals that could be submitted for a simple up-or-down vote without congressional add-ons. Other nations simply won't come to the table for the necessary give-and-take unless they can deal with a single negotiator, the president, who has "fast track" ability ("trade- promotion authority").

Before 1994, presidents were able to uplift the world economy by using that authority to create such arrangements as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. President Bush now needs the authority to further expand the WTO, and possibly seek open-market zones with Latin America, Asia, or Africa.

Democratic leaders in the Senate used Mr. Bush's eagerness for fast-track to extract an election-year plum in exchange for their support. The Senate bill, if it survives in the House, will provide generous health-care subsidies for workers who lose their jobs because of new trade deals.

Such provisions reflect the tough fight in the coming election to swing the control of a closely divided Congress to one party or the other. In that environment, special-interest politics can too easily trump the larger US interest in free trade.

Bush himself has caved in to pressures from particular industries by slapping high tariffs on certain steel imports and by not working to slim down the massive farm-subsidy bill that he signed yesterday.

With proper negotiating authority, a president can be leader of both the free world and the free-trade world.

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