House Votes to Stay in WTO

Continued U.S. participation in the 148-nation World Trade Organization was strongly endorsed by Congress Thursday in a vote prompted by lawmakers displeased with the course of U.S. trade policy.

The House voted 338-86 to reject a motion to withdraw congressional approval of the 1994 agreement establishing the Geneva-based trading body.

"As the world's largest exporter and importer, the United States has the most to gain from the lower trade barriers and fairer global trade rules that the WTO brings," said Rep. David Dreier (search), R-Calif.

While the vote was one-sided, opponents of the WTO did better than they did on a similar measure in 2000, when they garnered 56 votes to end U.S. association with the organization that sets rules for international commerce and mediates trade disputes.

Opposition came both from those who say the WTO has too often ruled against U.S. interests, such as when it sided with the European Union (search) in a tax dispute that resulted in sanctions imposed on U.S. producers, and those arguing that the general trend toward free trade has hurt American workers.

Rep. Bernie Sanders (search), I-Vt., who introduced the withdrawal resolution, said it was time for Congress to take a tough look at trade policies that "have failed the American worker, the American middle class, in a disastrous way."

Some who said it would be a mistake to pull out of the WTO stressed that their vote should not imply that they are satisfied with WTO procedures or that they backed U.S. trade policy, including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search), which could come up for a House vote in the next month.

Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a Democratic leader on trade issues, said there should be a review of the WTO dispute process, which he said too often goes against U.S. interests. There should also be better enforcement of trade rules in such areas as Chinese manipulation of its currency, protection of intellectual property and European subsidies, he said.

The White House, in a statement, strongly opposed the withdrawal resolution, saying U.S. participation in the WTO and its predecessor, the GATT (search), have contributed to the expansion of U.S. exports of goods and services, which have risen by almost $443 billion since 1994.

Pulling out of the WTO, it said, would result in loss of American business and jobs, discrimination against U.S. goods, and loss of leverage in holding other countries to their trade commitments.

The 1994 legislation authorizing U.S. entry in the WTO requires that the president submit a report on the costs and benefits of membership every five years. At that time, any member of either house of Congress can introduce a resolution seeking withdrawal of congressional approval.