Our nation's capital has become a very baffling place.
I spent a few days there last week, the first time I had visited in more than a year. The economic transformation of the city is truly astounding. Construction cranes stand throughout the long-struggling downtown area. In neighborhoods like
, chic restaurants are popping up like riders to an appropriations bill.
Yet government -- the business of D.C. -- has rarely looked worse. Not from a financial standpoint, of course, but in the sense that the mood of those that work in government is quite dour.
I spoke to a wide swath of people connected to government -- administration officials, congressional staffers, think-tank experts, K Street lawyers and lobbyists. The consensus was that the relations between
and the White House, which have never been terrific, especially during this administration, have never been worse. And everyone agreed the prospects for accomplishing anything of note in the next year and a half, the amount of time President
has left in office, is remote at best. Not a long time in the scheme of things, I suppose, but it still represents a lot of missed opportunities.
For example, the effort to pass a budget this year has been truly bizarre. After months of wrangling, Congress had to pass a
in September to continue funding the government. Remember, the budget is in surplus. Meaning the tough choices should not be so tough this year.
The current battle is over ratification of the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
. Speaking for myself, I would have been really fired up about this issue in, say, 1985, as the Cold War climaxed, when it really mattered.
Meanwhile, some really important issues have languished, especially in economic policy. For example, take "fast track," the authority the administration needs to negotiate new trade agreements and then submit them to Congress for an up or down vote. In the last two years, Congress and the White House have twice failed to agree on terms for fast track. The problem has come down to disagreement over how to negotiate matters regarding labor rights or the environment in the trade agreements. At this point, no one I spoke to saw any prospect for passage of fast track any time soon.
In November, the
World Trade Organization
is meeting in Seattle to launch a new round of global trade negotiations. The administration will need fast track to complete any deal. Without fast track, Congress will be able to amend an agreement and other countries would never close a deal with the U.S. in that situation.
The administration says that not having fast track is not a disaster. They note that they are able to begin negotiations without fast track and that they won't need fast track until they near completion of any negotiation, which could take years.
The problem with not having fast track, however, is that it sends the message that the U.S. is not really ready to negotiate, especially on the tough issues, like labor and environment. As opposition from unions and environmental groups over global trade has increased, so has the pressure to place L&E on the agenda of the next round. Global trade negotiations usually focus on exciting issues like tariff schedules and dispute resolution procedures. L&E will involve a lot of tough negotiations on issues that are indirectly related to trade. It will be very controversial and difficult, especially for developing countries.
Failure to discuss L&E in the next round would be a disaster. The opposition to global trade and the WTO is slowly spreading from fringe groups such as the
, which is basically opposed to globalization in any form, to more mainstream environment, labor and consumer groups. If L&E are not on the agenda (and I happen to believe they should be in any case), that opposition will only increase, putting at risk the liberalization of trade in areas of significant importance to the overall economy, businesses and investors, such as new rules on trade in biotechnology products.
In short, without fast track, it looks like the U.S. doesn't know where it stands on L&E, which is a poor incentive for developing countries to negotiate on those issues, and it looks like the U.S. is not serious about the economic issues on the Seattle agenda such as biotech, a global moratorium on internet taxation and the reduction of agricultural subsidies.
And as long as Congress wants to refight the battles of the Cold War, that will not change.
David Kurapka wrote speeches for Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin from 1996 until 1999. Before that, he was U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor's speechwriter from 1993 to 1996. Kurapka writes from Oakland, Calif., to which he is glad to have returned.