Tuesday, May 24, 2005

While eyes have been focused on the filibuster debates, a very important issue has been getting short shrift. That is the approval of CAFTA. Michael Barone thinks that CAFTA is a win win for the U.S. and from what I've read, I agree. 80% of our imports from these nations is already duty-free. What CAFTA does is help our exports TO these nations. The groups that oppose CAFTA are just acting reflexively as if they hear the words "free trade" and get the heebe-jeebies.
Yet it appears that most Democrats and not a few Republicans are set to oppose CAFTA. Why? Well, the AFL-CIO opposes it, as it has almost all free-trade agreements -- even the one with Australia, a huge market for U.S. manufacturers, whose labor laws are arguably more protective than those in the United States. And the sugar lobby, protected by tariffs of more than 100 percent and import quotas, opposes even CAFTA's small increase in imports. Big Sugar is listened to by members from states that produce sugar cane (Louisiana, Florida) and sugar beets (North Dakota, Michigan). CAFTA has also been opposed by Reps. Ellen Tauscher, Ron Kind, Adam Smith and Artur Davis of the House New Democrat Coalition. They complain about the labor provisions, even though they largely meet International Labor Organization (ILO) standards and are similar to Morocco's, for whose FTA all four voted. They add that the federal budget voted by congressional Republicans reduces funding for trade adjustment assistance and job training.

This is pretty thin gruel. The labor standards Zoellick negotiated provide for stronger enforcement of ILO standards. Over the past 20 years, most CAFTA countries have moved from dictatorship and, in some cases, civil war to democracy and the rule of law; their economies, with help from the CBI, have moved from subsistence to manufacturing. But the CBI expires in 2008, and unless it is replaced by CAFTA, the United States will have shoved its neighbors backward. The Democratic Party was historically the party of free trade, and House Democrats provided between 75 and 120 votes for previous FTAs. The Democrats' rage against Bush and the Republicans is understandable. But do they really want to turn their back on their history and our neighbors?
Bush needs to get out in front of this one and start pulling in some votes or this will go down as a major loss for the administration.