By: Charles Blum

When it took the lead in launching the Uruguay Round in 1985 – 1986, the Reagan administration did not have “fast track” authority. It was not until passage of the Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 that Congress granted the president fast-track trade approval authority.

Yet the Uruguay Round was as successful as it was ambitious, involving 125 member countries of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The aim was to modernize, codify and strengthen the GATT system by such steps as establishing multilateral disciplines on services, intellectual property and trade-related investment measures, ending subsidies and protectionism in agriculture, upgrading disciplines on industrial subsidies, and extending the reach of all GATT rules to developing countries. These aims constituted the most ambitious trade negotiations undertaken since the 1940s and were controversial at home and with many U.S. trading partners.

Without a formal congressional grant of authority, the Reagan administration worked intensively to build a consensus with both Congress and the private sector. These efforts included regular consultations with Ways and Means and Finance Committee staff after each negotiating session in Geneva. There were regular meetings with industry and labor advisors to review in detail the negotiating objectives and to obtain private-sector advice on them. And there were scores of meetings with industry associations and coalitions, with a special outreach to sectors showing the least interest in and greatest skepticism of the proposed negotiations.

The Reagan administration’s efforts were open, transparent and timely. Feedback from continuous consultations with Congress and the private sector strengthened the hand of American negotiators.

By the time the trade ministers met in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in September 1986, the U.S. delegation had demonstrated to the world that it had broad backing from Congress and the private sector.

The detailed negotiating agenda approved at Punta del Este contained every high-priority American objective and was approved unanimously, a signal accomplishment in trade negotiations of this scale.

The clear lessons from the launch of the Uruguay Round are that a broad national consensus can be achieved through open discussion with Congress and the private sector and that a consensus is essential to successful trade diplomacy.

By contrast, the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks have put the cart before the horse. The launch was made without any clear congressional or broad private-sector consensus, and the negotiations have proceeded behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Even members of Congress and cleared private-sector advisors have been denied effective access to the details of negotiating positions. Government officials insist that the negotiations are nearly complete and now want to limit Congress to an up-or-down, no-amendment vote on a huge, complex and, as-yet largely unknown, set of agreements.

To grant fast-track approval authority in these circumstances would amount to a post-facto endorsement of both the tactics and the substance of largely unseen and poorly understood provisions that might affect the integrity of U.S. regulations.

To rebuild congressional and public support for trade negotiations and achieve positive results for the nation, the Reagan model would be a good place to start.

Charles Blum is president of IAS Group in Washington, D.C., and was Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Multilateral Negotiations from 1985 to 1988