Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Politics of Trade

It's getting ugly out there:

As lawmakers hit the home stretch of tight races, textile makers are leveraging voters' economic anxieties to win industry protections and derail free-trade initiatives.

Before Congress left Washington for final campaigning, anxious lawmakers shelved several items that the Bush administration had pushed as part of its trade agenda, but which the textile industry opposed. Now the question for the White House is how to get those efforts back on track -- especially if Democrats, who are traditionally less friendly to free trade, take control of one or both houses of Congress in November's voting.

The textile industry's maneuvering shows how Republican vulnerabilities in midterm elections have created opportunities for some special-interest groups....

when Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced a bill Sept. 21 that would give trade preferences to Africa and Haiti, lobbyists for Amtac and the National Council of Textile Organizations, another textile group, swung into action. They were especially worried about provisions in the bill that would allow Haiti to use more foreign-made fabric, such as cheap cloth from China, to make clothes, while still qualifying for duty-free access to the U.S. market.

The groups appealed to Rep. Robin Hayes, a North Carolina Republican, for help. A schoolteacher and former textile worker is running on the Democratic ticket in a closely watched race against Mr. Hayes, who agreed to lead the opposition against the Haiti bill. Mr. Hayes spoke to party leaders, then wrote a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert arguing that the legislation could expose U.S. workers to "devastating" new competition.

The day before the Sept. 26 vote, lobbyists for the two textile groups took Mr. Hayes's letter and headed to Capitol Hill to rally support among other textile-district lawmakers. Ultimately, 16 Southern Republicans signed on....

Cafta [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] squeaked through the House by two votes, including one cast by Mr. Hayes. So when he sent Republican leaders the letter opposing the Haiti bill, they pulled the measure from the floor.

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal.