By and  on August 26, 2008

Free or fair?

That is the question the fashion industry is asking about Sen. Joseph Biden (D., Del.) following the decision of Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) to choose him as his vice presidential candidate. The industry is scurrying to determine whether Biden will live up to his internationalist reputation and be a forceful proponent of free trade, or will follow the skepticism of it exuded by Obama on the campaign trail.

Apparel firms, which imported $95.6 billion in goods in the last year, are already concerned over what they see as Obama’s protectionist bent, while U.S. textile producers are encouraged by some of Obama’s policy statements that indicate he will take a tougher stance against illegal foreign trade practices.

“Obviously, it’s a safe pick by Obama, at least in Washington consensus circles,” said a spokesman for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “The question with Sen. Biden is what is he going to say next. Sometimes that can be a double-edged sword.”

Julia Hughes, senior vice president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said, “Biden hasn’t been a leader on retail issues or trade issues. He’s approached them more from the foreign policy perspective.”

Hughes noted that, with his international approach, Biden has at times sided with importers on key issues. “He’s certainly not a protectionist,” she said.

Biden has had a mixed voting record on trade in the Senate. The six-term senator from Delaware voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which included six countries in the region, but he voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada 17 years ago.

NAFTA was a top-tier campaign issue for Democrats during the primaries. Obama has said repeatedly that he will summon Canada and Mexico back to the negotiating table to add stronger labor and environmental provisions in the trade pact.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, has tried to use NAFTA as a wedge issue to paint Obama as a “protectionist.” McCain, an ardent free trader, traveled to Canada and Mexico at the start of the general election season to champion NAFTA and free trade in general.

Biden also has voted against trade pacts with Chile and Singapore.

China has been in the spotlight on Capitol Hill for the past several months and Obama said during the primaries that he would crack down on alleged currency manipulation and contaminated imports from China.

Biden has signed on to a bill in the Senate that is sponsored by Sens. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) that would establish new rules to punish China, including the potential imposition of U.S. antidumping duties, if certain conditions are not met and the country doesn’t raise the value of its currency.

Democrats hope to widen their margins in the House and Senate in November and capture the White House, which could set the stage for punitive legislation to pass next year.

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