WASHINGTON — The House Textile Caucus, facing a quandary of representing a divided constituency, held a debate Tuesday over the Central American Free Trade Agreement to help decide which way its members should vote.
Tension was high as officials for and against CAFTA made their cases, while an administration official criticized textile associations opposed to the pact. Textile-state lawmakers could hold the trump card as the administration is poised to send the trade accord between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and the Dominican Republic to Congress.
“When I cast my vote, whether it is for or against CAFTA, I will annoy and disappoint about half of the textile community in my district. That’s the bad news,” said Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.), co-chair of the 80-member caucus. “The good news is I will please and satisfy the other half.”
Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.), also co-chair of the caucus, said he is leaning against CAFTA for several reasons, including concerns about an inadequate number of Customs inspectors to police transshipments; exceptions for foreign fabric and yarns contained in the agreement, and the lack of enforceable labor and environmental standards.
Coble said he is also leaning toward voting no on the accord, but he stressed that the administration has made significant steps to address industry concerns.
The Bush administration has courted the textile industry and recently secured the support of the National Council for Textile Organizations. Another outgrowth of the administration’s political maneuvering was the formation of a new coalition of seven textile, fiber and machinery associations that also have endorsed CAFTA.
But opposition in the sector remains strong from the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, the National Textile Association and the industry union UNITE HERE.
David Spooner, special textile negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who sat on the panel, dismissed the opposition.
“AMTAC’s way forward or backward is to call for a moratorium on all free-trade agreements,” Spooner said. “Ending all trade agreements is not a plan for long-term growth.”
In a question-and-answer session, Rep. Bob Ingliss (D., S.C.) asked whether the best strategy of dealing with China wasn’t strengthening the relationship with CAFTA countries.
Tantillo said the administration’s recent move to impose safeguard quotas on Chinese shipments does help the domestic industry, but claimed China must be controlled directly.
“It would be naive for us to sit here and say if you deal with China through the Central American agreement or an Andean [trade] package, that would be the answer to the problem,” said Tantillo. “We need a comprehensive arrangement with China to address currency manipulation, safeguards, subsidies and export rebates.”
Spratt asked about the current preferential trade program governing trade in the Caribbean, which largely requires the use of U.S. yarn and fabrics.
Tantillo said, “The reason we are opposed to this [CAFTA] is we already have a preferential arrangement predicated mainly on the use of U.S. yarn and fabric. Under CAFTA, there is no requirement to use any U.S. yarns and fabrics.”