Sound Advice from Bill Clinton’s Trade Rep

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week, a top trade official from the Clinton administration voiced her dissent from the trade-skeptic orthodoxy that now seems to dominate the Democratic Party.

Charlene Barshefsky was one of several former U.S. Trade Representatives who testified at the July 29 hearing. She served as Bill Clinton’s USTR from 1997 to 2001. In contrast to presidential hopeful Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, she told the panel that Congress should pass pending free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama.

According to BNA’s weekly International Trade Reporter newsletter [sorry, subscription required], she told the panel that blocking the U.S.-Colombia agreement would do nothing to improve labor rights in Colombia. In fact, refusing to enact the agreement would be the “dream” of Colombia’s anti-American neighbor Hugo Chavez, the heavy-handed president of Venezuela. Those are among the main points my Cato colleague Juan Carlo Hidalgo and I made in our Free Trade Bulletin on the agreement earlier this year.

Former USTR Barshefsky pronounced the U.S. tariff code as outdated in our era of globalization. We continue to apply high tariffs to such light-manufacturing products as clothing, shoes and household linens at the expense of low-income families. “They protect few if any jobs, but do noticeable damage to hopes of poverty reduction in the United States,” Barshefsky reminded the senators.

Her fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer, the congressman from Oregon, made the same point a few days earlier at a Cato policy forum on why Congress should unilaterally lower tariffs on shoe imports. You can watch a video of the forum here.