The priorities that U.S. agriculture has for the upcoming “millennium round” trade negotiations are shaped by domestic political and economic concerns, including the widely held belief in U.S. farm and commodity organizations that the Uruguay Round (UR) results were oversold, that foreign commitments made in the UR were not kept, and that the U.S. administration has been unresponsive to the international obstacles faced by domestic agriculture.
In the U.S. political system any trade agreement negotiated by the executive branch must be approved by the U.S. Congress. In order to avoid having the Congress amend and modify the agreement, a legislative procedure called “fast-track” authority has been devised. Under it, Congress cannot amend a trade agreement, but only vote for or against it. When fast-track authorization came up for debate in 1997, agricultural groups were at best lukewarm in their support for it because of their dissatisfaction with several aspects of the UR and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Ultimately, the vote on fast-track was not taken in 1997 because it became apparent that the bill would not pass. This failure shocked some agricultural groups concerned with international trade liberalization.
The Asian financial crisis and the attendant drop in agricultural exports brought home the crucial importance of foreign markets more sharply to most U.S. farm groups. In September 1998, when fast-track came to a vote again, many farm and agribusiness groups gave all-out support to the legislation, but the administration was unwilling to push for passage for fear of alienating labor, environmental, and other liberal groups. With fast-track’s second defeat, several strong supporters of further trade negotiations wondered about the administration’s depth of commitment to trade reform and what compromises would be needed to get the negotiations going.