The League’s History

The League’s long-standing interest in world trade has its origins in a 1920 study of high postwar prices. This study and another on the economic causes of war convinced the League that high tariffs and restrictive trade practices add to consumer prices, reduce competition in the marketplace and cause friction among nations. The Depression accentuated the impact of high tariffs and moved the League to take action for the first time on trade matters. Since then, the League has been involved with every major piece of trade legislation, always strongly supporting measures that expand rather than restrict trade.

After an extensive reappraisal in the early 1960s, the League urged that the United States systematically reduce trade barriers, delegate long-term, flexible negotiating authority to the executive and use trade adjustment assistance as a positive alternative to import restrictions. In 1965, the League added another dimension – support for measures to relax restrictions on trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The 1972 Convention, during a time of dollar devaluation and balance-of-trade deficits, asked Leagues to reexamine trade policies to find new ways to help the economy adjust to changing trade patterns, especially measures to counter rising protectionist sentiment. The revised 1973 position in support of liberal trade policies placed a new emphasis on expanding and improving adjustment assistance programs.

The League vigorously supported the Trade Act of 1974, which led to U.S. participation in the Tokyo Round of tariff negotiations under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In 1979, the League mounted a major lobbying effort to assure implementation of the Tokyo Round of multilateral trade negotiations (MTN) agreements designed to establish a fair, open and disciplined trading structure for the next decade. Throughout the five years of negotiations, the League worked to deflect protectionist efforts in Congress to block the negotiations. Through its efforts, the League helped assure overwhelming passage of the Trade Agreements Act of 1979, the largest single trade bill in U.S. history. Attempts to undermine the trade agreements have been vigorously opposed by the League.

The League also has been instrumental in promoting measures to improve trade opportunities for developing countries and in defeating protectionist amendments to foreign assistance appropriation bills. The League strongly supported the Trade and International Economic Policy Reform Act of 1987 and worked to defeat restrictive amendments.

In 2002, the League voiced its opposition to providing the President with new negotiating authority for trade agreements because the proposed authority did not adequately provide for protecting environmental, labor and political values as part of trade agreements.

The League’s Positions

Statement of Position on Liberal Trade Policies, as Announced by National Board, June 1973 and Updated, April 2002:

The League of Women Voters of the United States supports a liberal U.S. trade policy aimed at reducing trade barriers and expanding international trade. Such a policy helps foster international cooperation, democratic values, and economic prosperity at home and abroad as well as benefiting consumers through lowered prices, expanded choice and improved products and services. The League believes that U.S. trade policy should be based on the long-term public interest, not on special interests, and should advance the achievement of other important policy goals, including

  • improvement of basic living standards worldwide; reduction of inequalities within and among nations;
  • protection of the environment and global natural resources;
  • respect for human, labor, religious and political rights;
  • improvement of labor conditions around the world.

The League endorses the worldwide systematic reduction of tariffs, subsidies and quotas. The League also supports the reduction of non-tariff barriers to trade consistent with the goals and strategies set forth in this position statement. Administrative and customs procedures should be efficient and flexible.

The League supports U.S. participation in an international trade organization aimed at promoting worldwide economic growth via an open trading system. This organization should have the power to hold nations accountable for commitments made in multilateral trade treaties and should recognize the legitimacy of international agreements in the areas of the environment, labor, and human rights. Its proceedings should be open to scrutiny by the public, the press, and non-governmental organizations. The public should have timely access to a wide range of its documents, and its dispute settlement process should allow friend-of-the-court briefs.

The organization should recognize the legitimacy of a country’s measures in the areas of the environment, health, labor and human rights that are more stringent than international standards or than those of its trading partners. These measures should not discriminate between domestic products and imports and should not be used as a pretext for restricting the flow of trade. The League believes that trade agreements should be negotiated multilaterally in the broadest possible international forum. Regional and bilateral trade agreements can be useful steppingstones to broader trade liberalization but should not be allowed to block progress in multilateral negotiations nor to marginalize poor countries.

The League believes that the U.S. trade policy-making process should be open, transparent, and efficient and should advance League trade policy goals. The President should be given the authority to negotiate trade agreements within prior guidelines and conditions set by Congress. Congress should have an adequate but limited time period to debate and accept or reject the resulting proposed agreements, without amendment. Congress should take an active part in the policy-making process, establishing trade priorities and negotiating objectives and observing and monitoring trade negotiations. Congress should have the resources and staff expertise necessary to fulfill its trade responsibilities. The trade policy-making processes of both Congress and the executive branch should include meaningful opportunities for input from a broad range of public interest perspectives, as well as from business interests, and should include timely assessment of the impact of proposed trade agreements.

The League supports a variety of trade-related strategies to protect the environment and promote labor, political, religious and human rights, including

  • trade negotiations and trade agreements that lead to progress on environmental and social objectives;
  • monitoring and reporting of countries’ practices and performance in these areas;
  • recognition of the legitimacy of multilateral environmental agreements;
  • strengthening the International Labor Organization and promoting ratification of ILO core labor rights;
  • promoting ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar international agreements;
  • international sanctions aimed at ending egregious violations of human rights;
  • legitimate labeling and certification programs (e.g., eco-labeling);
  • protection of endangered species;
  • elimination of environmentally and economically harmful subsidies and incentives (e.g., for fishing, timber, agriculture);
  • codes of conduct to encourage responsible business practices in these areas (e.g., guarding against abusive child labor);
  • domestic regulations and practices that advance environmental and social goals and that are not a pretext for restricting trade; and
  • aid to developing countries to improve their ability to create and enforce national laws protecting the environment and human and labor rights.

The League supports trade and related policies that address the special needs of developing countries, with emphasis on economic growth and improving income distribution. The League supports such measures as:

  • priority elimination of tariffs and quotas on exports of developing countries;
  • longer adjustment periods and financial and technical assistance for implementation of trade commitments;
  • special measures to ensure access to essential medicines;
  • financial and technical assistance to enable developing countries to participate effectively in the world trading system;
  • financial aid for infrastructure improvements; and
  • policies that recognize the special circum-stances of developing countries in the areas of food security and transition to the world trading system.

The League supports strong U.S. leadership in, and financial support of, international institutions and programs that reduce poverty and address the special needs of developing countries in the areas of the environment and human and labor rights.

The League supports measures to address the adverse impact of international trade on domestic workers, firms and industries. Training, education and safety net programs, such as cash assistance, relocation assistance, and health care, should be enhanced and made easily available to dislocated workers, whether or not a trade connection can be made. Portability of health care coverage, pension rights and other fringe benefits should also be assured. The League supports temporary trade barriers consistent with international trade rules to permit firms seriously injured by surging import competition to adjust to changed conditions.