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Voters making views known to candidates on trade issues

A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center produced some interesting findings regarding public opinion on free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization.

Some 44 percent of the respondents said they feel the agreements are good for the country; 35 percent believe the pacts have hurt the U.S.

But they were almost equally divided on whether the agreements have been good or bad for their own financial situation: 36 percent felt they have been hurt, 35 percent that they have been helped.

More telling, though, were responses to other questions:

  • 44 percent say the agreements have resulted in lower wages for Americans, while only 11 percent say they have brought higher wages.

  • 48 percent say the agreements have cost American jobs, 12 percent that they have created jobs. Interestingly, both Republicans and Democrats strongly agreed that the agreements have had a negative impact on jobs (42 percent Republicans, 51 percent Democrats) and wages (42 percent Republicans, 48 percent Democrats).

  • 34 percent say the agreements have slowed U.S. economic growth, 28 percent that they have spurred growth.

One of the selling points for free trade agreements is that they bring lower prices to consumers. But in the Pew survey, only 32 percent said they feel the agreements have brought lower prices; 30 percent said they think prices are higher; and 23 percent said they believe there is no difference.

As things crank up in earnest for the 2008 presidential election, the Bush administration has just pushed through a free trade agreement with Peru, and continues to talk up others, including one with New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, and Brunei, and others with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

Voters, meanwhile, are pressuring the candidates to outline their position on trade.

The movement to low wage countries of more than 3 million U.S. jobs — including hundreds of thousands in the textile industry — the ongoing safety issues with food, toys, and other imported products; the escalating U.S. trade deficit; and general disgust with the World Trade Organization and it's anti-U.S. cotton rulings, have left a sour taste with many Americans.

Most of the Democrat candidates and at least one Republican have said, if elected, they will take a tougher stance on trade agreement provisions. In several cases, that would include a re-examination of the biggie North American Free Trade Agreement — Sen. John Edwards terms it “a disaster;” Sen. Barack Obama has said a review of NAFTA would be one of the first things he would do as president; and Sen. Hillary Clinton has said she would seek “to correct its shortcomings.”

All three have said they will change the Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track,” which allows the president to approve trade deals that Congress must then either vote up or down, but can't revise.

President Bush's TPA expired June 30, 2007, and Congress has not renewed it. The leading Democrat candidates say they would replace fast track with a more workable process that includes labor/human rights/environmental provisions and/or strengthen Congress' role in trade agreements.

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