President Clinton, acknowledging widespread economic anxiety among middle-class workers, signed a sweeping global trade agreement Thursday that he said would prove America can compete for the high-wage jobs of the future.
The legislation, which the president signed in the ornate main hall of the Organization of American States, authorizes the United States to join with 123 other nations to lower trade barriers.Clinton said the 22,000-page agreement, which cuts global tariffs by 38 percent and knocks down other barriers to trade, is a victory for American workers because it will expand markets for U.S. products and services and show that Americans are not afraid of competition.
"Some say the answer is to try to just hunker down within our borders. That is clearly not an option. No country can escape the global economy, and the greatest, largest, most powerful country in the world cannot escape the global economy," Clinton said.
Clinton was flanked at the ceremony by members of his administration and outgoing House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, whose support was crucial in the final days in winning congressional passage.
Clinton's signature means that almost 40 countries have now approved the agreement and another 40 are expected to do so before the end of this year. The GATT accord, which sets up a new, more powerful World Trade Organization to police trade disputes, is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.
The House and Senate passed the legislation by lopsided margins in a rare lame-duck session of Congress that had been forced on the administration by opponents who fought up to the end against the pact, warning that the WTO represented an unprecedented infringement on American sovereignty.
Opponents also charged that the GATT, by lowering U.S. barriers to trade, would make American workers more vulnerable to low-wage workers in other countries.
In his remarks, Clinton sought to address these middle-class anxieties, which polls showed played a major role in the huge losses Democrats suffered in the November elections.
"It is true that one of the reasons for stagnant wages is intense competition in our markets and other markets by people who work for wages our people can't live on," Clinton said.
But he said this competition is occurring anyway, and America must seek to expand its own markets through agreements such as GATT and the North American Free Trade Agreement and an accord he is set to strike this weekend with 33 other leaders of this hemisphere to expand NAFTA.
"We will never restore stability to the workers of our country until we have more folks buying what we sell," Clinton said.
Meanwhile in Geneva Thursday, representatives from more than 120 countries formally approved Jan. 1 as the day the World Trade Organization will start operation.