DC FRESHMEN: FREE TRADERS, BUT…… 04-25-9504-25-95


Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — While the 86 new members of the House have helped the Republican majority charge up Congress with bold positions on welfare, crime and government spending, their stance on international trade has remained untested.

However, a survey of the newcomers by WWD shows that with the existing congressional support, enough of them favor broadening Caribbean Basin trade benefits and pursuing free-trade talks with Chile to insure passage of the initiatives this year.

The survey, conducted from January through March, indicates that 46 percent of the 86 new House members favor granting Caribbean Basin Initiative countries trade parity with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The survey also showed that 25 percent of them favor giving the President fast-track negotiating authority to begin free-trade talks with Chile.

The news of the Caribbean Initiative support was welcomed by Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.

“This is encouraging to us,” Martin said. “There has been a lot of discussion that this freshman class is more protectionist, but this is good news.”

Rep. Robert Matsui (D., Calif.), a free trade advocate who served as the administration’s point man on several trade issues and headed the House Trade Subcommittee last year, analyzed a summary of the survey results and said the backing to begin trade talks with Chile appeared to be strong enough to insure its passage later this year.

“This should give us sufficient votes to pass it,” Matsui said. “This would give us a good cushion.”

Yet the degree of support on the various issues — CBI parity, fast track and a Western Hemisphere bloc — is much less than the 86 percent who consider themselves free traders. Some who analyzed a summary of the survey saw this as indicative of how important the free trade rhetoric is.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.) was not surprised by the relatively smaller support for specific items.

“There are many inconsistencies, but primarily, it shows that the rhetoric of free trade is a powerful tool, and that will be important when we phrase the trade debate,” he said. Advocates of liberalized world trading rules may phrase issues as protectionism versus free trade, he said, making it difficult for members to choose the protectionist side because it apparently is the least desired public position.

“Being for free trade is like being for equal rights,” he said.

Kolbe, a member of the House since 1985, has been in the forefront of the free trade movement, working as the Republican liaison with the Clinton White House in securing passage of NAFTA and the GATT Uruguay Round. He also is organizing an educational program for congressional newcomers on trade matters.

Robert Hall, government affairs vice president of the National Retail Federation, said that the 86 percent who describe themselves as free traders “reveals a clear indication that Congress wants to stay involved in trade policy.”

The down side to that, Hall said, is that the other responses indicate that protectionist philosophies could influence the debate.

Protectionist Pat Choate, who coauthored the book “Save Your Job, Save Our Country. Why NAFTA Must be Stopped — Now” with Ross Perot, interpreted the survey results this way: “The freshman class is up for grabs. Either side of the trade debate can win them over.”

Fifty-five freshmen completed the 12-question survey. The remaining 31 decline to respond. The data was analyzed by a statistician at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., and it was determined that the survey results could be extrapolated to the entire freshman class with a 95 percent confidence level.

While the 104th Congress does not face any major trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the GATT Uruguay Round, both wrested through the 103rd, this Congress faces a series of smaller measures promising to continue the trade liberalization of the two pacts. The trade stance of the freshman class could be critical, since it comprises such a large potential voting bloc.

During congressional campaigns last year, Perot’s protectionist grass roots organization United We Stand took an active position in many House races, and some in Congress feared that the new freshman arriving in Washington this year were more parochial or nationalistic in their positions on trade matters.

Trade items on the congressional agenda this year include expanding NAFTA to Latin America, beginning with Chile. House Trade Subcommittee chairman Phil Crane (R., Ill.) is drafting a fast-track bill that would grant the President a blanket fast track, which is expected to be considered when the House returns to work in May. Congress also is set to consider the CBI parity issue.

Complicating these deliberations is the question of linking trade policy to labor, human rights and environmental protections. So far in the 104th Congress, Republicans have held firm against the idea, while Rep. Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) continues warn that without strong labor protections, a coalition of Democrats will oppose granting the President fast-track authority.

The freshmen also were asked where they placed themselves on the spectrum ranging from aggressively free trade to aggressively protectionist; whether trade was an issue in their campaign, and whether they received campaign support from Ross Perot’s grassroots organization United We Stand.

In addition, they were asked to list what industries in their districts they considered vulnerable to imports and what jobs are so valuable they should be protected by trade policy. In an attempt to further refine their positions on key issues, they were asked whether labor, human rights, or environmental concerns should be linked to trade policy.

On the trade spectrum, against the 86 percent who considered themselves free traders, 14 percent considered themselves protectionists to some degree. Six members created a new category and called themselves “fair traders.”

Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.), a freshman who represents textile interests, described fair trade as attaining a balance.

“If the U.S. accepts other goods without restrictions, then other countries should accept our goods without any restrictions,” Jones said in an interview. “So many times our trade relationships are not balanced. We start out at a disadvantage when we negotiate trade agreements because we begin by giving away benefits.”

Trade also did not emerge as a partisan issue, since 87 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats surveyed said they were free traders to some degree.

As for the degree of support candidates received from Perot’s organization, 14 percent of the free traders said they received such support, while 52 percent said they did not. Yet the degree of financial support from United We Stand is difficult to quantify since it does not have a political action committee registered with the Federal Election Commission. Even members, when responding to this question, could not say precisely how much support they received from the organization.

On the thorny issue of whether the U.S. should link trade to human rights issues and the environment, 45 percent of all respondents said it should not. With GOP leaders insisting that future trade agreements should not contain the link, this percentage could tip the scales against the Democrats’ wish to preserve the linkage initially forged in the NAFTA side agreements. The freshman stance on linking human rights and trade also could affect an anticipated vote on whether to extend for another year China’s most-favored-nation trading status.

Matsui said he was encouraged that almost half the class disapproved of the link. Advocates of continuing China’s trade status have been apprehensive about the upcoming battle because of the small degree of improvement in human rights in China. If half the freshmen agree to back China’s trade status with no link to human rights improvements, a majority could be patched together to push it through the House, Matsui predicts.

NRF’s Hall, however, does not see enough support among House freshmen to give MFN advocates a majority. “China is in deep trouble,” Hall said.

Asked what industries were vulnerable to imports, members most frequently pointed to their parochial interests. Agriculture was cited the most, 13 times, as vulnerable to imports, while textiles were named by eight members.

Freshmen also were asked whether a Western Hemisphere trading bloc would enhance U.S. international competitiveness. On that, 62 percent agreed and 27 percent disagreed. Here, Matsui interpreted the results as relative support among freshmen for expanding NAFTA throughout Latin America.