WASHINGTON — Business lobbyists in Washington, including those in the plastics industry, are pushing to renew the president's authority to negotiate ``fast-track'' trade deals, but congressional supporters contend the provision is in trouble because businesses have not put enough support behind it.
``Fast track is in deep trouble,'' said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., at a recent House hearing. ``The business community does not understand the importance of fast track. It is seen as procedural — as a result, you are not seeing the kind of effort from the business community.''
Matsui is a key House supporter of President Clinton's push for fast-track authority.
The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. testified before a congressional hearing Sept. 30. An SPI representative who testified before the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee said many businesses are not paying attention to the fast-track debate.
James Meinert, international marketing director for Snider Mold Co. in Mequon, Wis., said in an interview after testifying that business people in the Midwest do not understand why fast track is controversial and are not ``lobbying for it or showing much concern.''
Meinert told the subcommittee that giving the president fast-track authority is key to opening markets and insuring the United States does not lose ground to other countries that rapidly are negotiating major trade deals.
Industry and government figures show rapidly expanding exports now account for about 10 percent of all U.S. plastics jobs.
Industry employment tied to exports increased 20 percent between 1994 and 1996, above the industry's average job growth. And the value of U.S. plastics exports went from $16.1 billion to $20 billion in the same period.
``The plastics industry's future and the future of companies like Snider Mold is in the newly industrializing and developing nations of South America, Asia and Africa,'' Meinert said. Without fast track, other countries would be reluctant to negotiate complex deals with the United States, he said.
SPI is just starting its efforts and is planning a campaign to expand awareness and urge members to write letters in the next few weeks, said Lewis Freeman, vice president of government affairs.
``My sense is that in our industry the importance of fast track is not as well understood as in some other industries with a longer history of trade involvement,'' he said.
Freeman faulted the Clinton administration for some of the lethargy among businesses, saying the president has not pushed very hard on fast track and delayed its release until this fall.
Fast track would give the president authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress must approve or reject without modifications, giving negotiators strong authority to bargain without fear that lawmakers could amend any deals. It expired in 1993.
But the provision has drawn strong objection from House Democrats, organized labor and environmentalists who want to be able to attach labor and environmental protections to the bills.
The United States needs to force foreign countries to adopt such measures to protect U.S. living standards and keep people in the bottom economic rungs of society from suffering because of free trade, opponents say.
A compromise version between the White House and Senate Republicans passed the Senate Finance Committee Oct. 1, but House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has said the plan faces long odds in his chamber because of Democratic and union opposition.
The first target if fast track is renewed is likely to be a free-trade agreement with Chile, although some plastics officials have said a market like Brazil would be more beneficial.
The plastics industry exported $549 million to Brazil in 1996, making it the fastest-growing market among the top 10 plastic export locations, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures. Exports to Brazil in 1994 were $311 million.
Chile, by comparison, had just $174 million in plastics exports in 1996, Commerce figures indicate. But Chile's economy more closely mirrors the United States and a deal is seen as easier to reach.
Several speakers at the hearing said Asian and South American countries rapidly are negotiating free-trade deals among themselves, and the European Union and Canada also are striking agreements.
But U.S. negotiators have been unable to strike such deals since 1993, and the United States is a part of only one of 35 free-trade deals in the Western Hemisphere, U.S. Trade Rep. Charlene Barshefsky told the committee.