Byline: JIM OSTROFF
WASHINGTON -- The attorneys general of 42 states asked President Clinton Friday to convene a federal-state summit to address concerns that enactment of the GATT Uruguay Round could compromise states' and cities' abilities to set their own business, taxation and environmental laws.
In a letter delivered to the White House, the state officials called upon Clinton to hold this parley before work is completed on a bill that would implement provisions of the Round, including creation of a new World Trade Organization that is empowered to enforce trade laws. The administration, which has been working on an implementing bill with Congress, plans to submit the bill formally by mid-August. The concerns of these state officials also reflect a feeling among several segments involved with trade -- both free-traders and protectionists -- that the administration is trying to rush through the GATT agreement without proper consideration of various issues.
Specifically, the attorneys general warned that a binding trade decision by the WTO would force the federal government to sue states or municipalities, or threaten to withhold funding, to compel them to change a law or regulation. The WTO, unlike the GATT, would be empowered to issue binding rulings in trade disputes and levy fines against nations that refuse to comply with the decisions.
"This is of particular concern, given that some of our trading partners have apparently identified specific state laws which they intend to challenge under the WTO," the attorneys general wrote.
They added there is concern that WTO decisions could render invalid state laws regulating the workplace, business practices, the environment and consumer health and safety, including food safety.
Clinton was in Europe for an economic summit when the letter was received. John Emerson, the White House GATT coordinator, said officials with the U.S. Trade Representative's office will meet with the attorneys general's group, but knew no further details.
Attorneys general from Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands co-signed the letter to Clinton. Those who did not sign were from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Ralph Nader, the consumer activist who has worked with the states' attorneys, said creation of a WTO "will open up all kinds of mischief" by enabling foreign nations to challenge any U.S. laws they contend restrain world trade.
Nader, in an interview, said, "If a nation wanted to challenge a California law, it could take the state to the WTO in Geneva, where the proceedings are held in secret and the state is represented by USTR, whose view is 'world trade uber alles.' If the nation prevails, California will have to change its law or the U.S. will pay a perpetual trade fine."
Nader -- who last week challenged Vice President Al Gore to debate GATT on the Larry King Live television show, but was rebuffed by Gore -- said the President more likely would threaten to withhold federal aid to states to force their compliance with a WTO ruling. This would violate the U.S. Constitution, he said, contending only Congress can vote to preempt state or municipal laws.
Nader averred the White House, leery of repeating its pitched battle of last fall over the North American Free Trade Agreement, is seeking to complete work quickly on the GATT bill and avoid public hearings.
Robin Lanier, a vice president with the International Mass Retail Association, which strongly advocates free trade, also complained about the lack of public hearings on GATT. However, she wants the enabling legislation to set public hearings before decisions are made on how the Multi-Fiber Arrangement, which currently governs the quota system in world textile trade, will be phased out.
The retailers fear the U.S. will focus the phaseouts on fringe items that generally are not made in this country.
"The administration seems hell-bent on doing this all in the dark," Lanier said. "There are hearings on Mickey Mouse moving to Virginia [as part of a proposed Walt Disney theme park], but when we ask for two hearings on what textile and apparel products will be integrated out of the MFA in three stages over 10 years, the administration says it's horrible and can't be done," she said. "In the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee there is not one profile in courage, as everyone says public hearings will be too controversial."
Lanier added that retailers and importers are focusing their lobbying efforts on Senate Finance Committee members and believe Sen. Bob Packwood (R, Ore.) is amenable to offering an amendment to the GATT bill that will call for public hearings on the MFA phaseout.
The GATT accord provides that import quotas on 51 percent of all textiles and apparel be eliminated in three periods of three, four and three years. After 10 years, all quotas would be eliminated. directs that these decisions be made by the government's Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements.
-- Fairchild News Service