Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — President Clinton signed the apparel-tariff-dropping Trade and Development Act of 2000 into law Thursday, extending benefits to the Caribbean, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa.
An hour-long signing ceremony on the White House south lawn brought together lawmakers, diplomats, Capitol Hill staffers, and a healthy contingent of apparel, retail and import officials whose companies hope to increase sourcing from the regions.
Declaring trade as “one of the most powerful engines” for economic development, Clinton acknowledged the arduous political process the bill went through before Congress overwhelmingly approved it last week. Approval followed weeks of on-again-off-again negotiations between the House and Senate, and several years of attempts to pass the bill.
Clinton called the measure “good for the United States, good for Africa, good for Central America and the Caribbean.”
Sitting in the audience of more than 300 people were a contingent of U.S.-based apparel companies who drove to Washington from nearby Colonial Williamsburg, Va., where they’re attending the annual meeting of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.
“This strikes a good balance,” said Steve Lamar, AAMA government relations director, of the measure and the interplay from various interests that created the final bill.
Among association members represented at the signing were Warnaco, Sara Lee, Fruit of the Loom, Russell Corp. and Jockey. Nearby sat retail officials from Kmart, The Limited, the National Retail Federation and the International Mass Retail Association.
“Momentous,” is how Frank Kelly, Liz Claiborne’s vice president for international trade, compliance and government affairs, described the occasion, recalling how more than a decade ago importers began lobbying Congress to extend apparel trade breaks to both regions.
“This will help,” Kelly said, although, “we would have liked to have more third-country fabric in the legislation,” referring to the textile-origin rules in the bill that largely requires apparel to be made of U.S. fabric and yarn to receive duty-free breaks.
The 48 sub-Saharan African and 25 Caribbean Basin countries, joined by retailers, importers and U.S.-based apparel companies with offshore production, fought for more liberal textile-origin rules, in the face of fierce U.S. textile industry opposition.
In the end, allowances were made for some Caribbean Basin-made knit fabric to be fashioned into underwear and outerwear shirts. There were also some special exceptions for bras made in the region.
Africa will receive a limited regional-fabric exception and the poorest countries will be able to use textiles from anywhere, also within a limit. In addition, African countries can produce fine merino wool sweaters that receive duty-free treatment and the materials can come from anywhere.
The bill — the first major trade legislation to emerge from Congress in almost six years — goes into effect Oct. 1. Despite the signing, there are several controversial loose ends that need to be addressed in regulations implementing the bill.
Such issues being closely watched by industry include whether the limits on regionally produced textiles in the Caribbean Basin will be divided among the countries. Apparel producers and importers don’t want such quotas.