Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — With the rest of Congress focused on antiterrorism and the economy, the House Ways & Means Committee is zeroing in on trade and is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would drop apparel duties for Andean countries.
Also on the committee’s agenda is a vote on a controversial proposal to grant President Bush trade negotiating authority, which would give a boost to pending agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Other votes before the panel involve renewing bills that extend unemployment benefits to workers dislocated by trade and continue duty-free breaks for hundreds of nonapparel and textile products, like some accessories and tableware, for qualifying poor countries.
This flurry of trade activity follows Wednesday’s approval in the Senate of a bill normalizing trade relations with Vietnam. The House last month approved the measure, which drastically lowers tariffs on all goods, including apparel that now is faced with average duties of about 60 percent. The President said he will sign the agreement.
But generating the most immediate controversy is renewal of trade promotion authority, formerly called fast track, which has been the target of globalization critics for years. While the Andean Trade Preferences Act has yet to stir much public debate, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before it becomes the target of lawmakers’ arrows because it involves the politically delicate issue of competition with U.S. apparel and textile jobs.
The U.S. textile industry, represented by the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, is opposing the Andean pact, even though it provides for duty breaks for apparel made from U.S. textiles. ATMI officials argue that the bill is coming too quickly behind Caribbean Basin trade breaks, which the industry has yet to fully embrace.
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said the bill’s caps on apparel from the region receiving duty breaks if they are made of textiles from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador or Colombia, should help to appease Capitol Hill critics, particularly in the Senate. There are also no caps on apparel from the region if garments are made from U.S. textiles, she said.
While the Andean pact isn’t yet slated for a full House vote — it’s expected to be approved by the GOP-controlled Ways & Means — Hughes said she “wouldn’t be surprised if it moved reasonably quickly.”
Meanwhile, the GOP-backed TPA bill, written as a compromise with some moderate Democrats, is slated to be rushed to a full House vote next week. It’s unclear whether the TPA bill, whose lead sponsor is Ways & Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), meets the test of enough Democrats, whose votes are needed for passage.
Having the authority would mean that Congress couldn’t amend trade agreements, only vote to approve or disapprove them. The administration argues that the authority is key to gaining credibility in trade negotiations.
While the Thomas-backed TPA legislation requires trade bills to have as “negotiating objectives” worker and environmental standards, critics contend that the bill doesn’t go far enough to insure that weak standards don’t give trading partners a competitive advantage and allow poor conditions in developing countries to persist.
After Thomas unveiled the compromise bill, Reps. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), the top Democrat on Ways & Means — who holds the key for many Democrat TPA votes — and Sander Levin (D., Mich.), who leads his party on the Trade Subcommittee, offered their own proposal. In contrast to the Thomas plan, the Rangel-Levin proposal details minimum labor standards and requires trading partners to uphold their labor and environmental laws. Any “sustained or recurring course of nonenforcement in a manner affecting trade or investment” could trigger some type of action, to be negotiated in an agreement.
Rangel told reporters he doubts his and Levin’s alternative TPA plan will be adopted even in part. The two lawmakers, in a statement, said Thomas’s pressing ahead with TPA threatens the delicate bipartisanship forged in Congress since Sept. 11.
Thomas and the Democratic backers of the TPA bill, led by Rep. Cal Dooley (D., Calif.) have said the authority needs to be rushed to a vote because enabling the U.S. to have more trade agreements means stronger international ties that translate into stronger national security.
Patricia Campos, chief lobbyist for the apparel union UNITE, doubted Thomas will have enough Democrat votes for passage “because the bill doesn’t go far enough to address labor and environmental standards.”