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WHAT U.S. SHOULD LEARN FROM THE GATT DEBATE

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The comfortable margins by which Congress passed the needlessly controversial GATT trade pact this week send some important messages.

First, the lawmakers' action indicates the possibility of bipartisan cooperation between the White House and Congress after the Republicans take control of both the House of Representatives and Senate next year.That much should be clear from the fact that the pact drew both support and opposition without regard to party lines, often reflecting local commercial concerns more than broad national interests. But then bipartisan- ship on this particular issue should have been expected since the pact began as a GOP initiative during the Ronald Reagan administration and was subsequently championed by the Clinton administration. This continuity makes sense since GATT extends free trade policies followed by every U.S. president since World War II.

Second, this week's move by Congress came despite intense fear-mongering by radio talk shows across the country. This development indicates there are sharp limits to the impact of the talk shows, which on occasion have been described as a major new force in American politics.

Third, by passing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, this nation's lawmakers generally showed an encouraging ability to sort through some highly complex issues and separate fact from fiction.

Plenty of false charges were hurled at GATT. The main ones involved claims that by joining 122 other nations in lowering trade barriers, the United States would destroy many American jobs and much of this nation's sovereignty, too.

What nonsense!

The claim about jobs being sacrificed on GATT's altar grew out of reports that Americans already have lost jobs as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the new pact lowering tariffs and other trade barriers among the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

In point of fact, NAFTA did throw some Americans out of work. But the figure nationwide is only about 12,000. By contrast, the Department of Labor reports that 130,000 export-related jobs in the U.S. were supported by the growth in business with Mexico alone last year. Only this week Caterpillar Inc. reported that its sales of giant earthmoving equipment to Mexico during the first half of this year soared 77 per cent above last year's levels. Midwestern farmers are selling three times as much corn to Mexico this year as last.

No wonder that economists almost universally support GATT. They estimate that over the next decade the new pact will increase U.S. output by $65 billion to $200 billion, create 700,000 high-paying jobs in the United States, add $1,000 or more a year to the income of the average family and save American consumers thousands of dollars.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch warned that every month of delay in approving and implementing GATT would cost the nation $1.2 billion in economic growth and 4,000 new jobs.

What about the claim that the United States stands to lose sovereignty under the World Trade Organization, the dispute-settling machinery set up under GATT?

Again, more nonsense!

The fact is that current GATT bodies dealing with trade disputes generally side with the U.S. position. But their findings can be vetoed by any nation - including the accused one. Only Congress and the president can modify U.S. law. The United States can withdraw from the WTO at any time. Or the GATT process can be amended if experience indicates changes are warranted. As the world's largest trader, the United States can be expected to get its way most of the time.

As transportation and communication improve, the world will keep getting smaller and smaller - making trade barriers less and less justifiable. Though it's a major breakthrough, GATT is only the latest milestone on the road to more free trade. But it won't be the last effort to bring consumers more choices and lower prices through stiffer competition. The next time around, let's all strive to avoid wild fears and over-heated emotions spewed out against GATT.