How Many Broom Makers Does It Take To Kill A Trade Pact?

Representative Terry L. Bruce (D-Ill.) figures a North American free-trade zone is a good idea. But he's not willing to abandon the broom-makers of downstate Illinois to get it. So in May, when the House decided whether to simplify consideration of a free-trade pact, Bruce voted no. At stake are the jobs of 1,000 to 3,000 of his broom-winder constituents--Old World craftsmen who hand-wire sheaves of broomcorn to wooden handles.

Broom-makers figure a free-trade deal would make their products, now protected by a 32% tariff, too expensive to compete against cheaper Mexican brooms. "These are family-owned, labor-intensive businesses, heavily concentrated in my district," says Bruce. "They're worried."

They're not the only ones. A broad coalition of manufacturers and growers is already lining the lobbies of the Capitol in a vigorous fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Their demands come just as weary negotiators from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico wrap up tentative agreements in financial services, environmental protection, and transportation.

Inking compromises on those issues was supposed to be the tough part. Now negotiators have to deal with opposition to NAFTA from manufacturers of cement, glass, athletic shoes, auto parts, and furniture; sugar, peanut, and tobacco growers; citrus, cucumber, and tomato farmers; tuna and pepper canners; and a dozen others who have come out of the woodwork to oppose parts of the treaty. They're joined by a diverse army of "public interest" lobbyists and groups, including Ralph Nader, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club--even the United Methodist Church Board.

ELECTION DEADLINE. As a result--and despite the support of export giants such as Caterpillar Inc. and Pfizer and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--Congressional ratification of the trade agreement is now far from assured. Indeed, the upcoming lobbying battle could make the 1986 contest over tax reform look tame. "Last year, we were a little complacent, and we didn't realize the strength of the opposition," says Frank Kittredge, president of the 500-member, pro-NAFTA National Foreign Trade Council. The group will meet in Washington on July 13 to plan its strategy.

NAFTA opponents have their best chance at killing the trade bill in the House. Even if the Bush Administration wraps up the agreement this summer, as appears likely, little time remains for a vote before preelection adjournment. A record number of retirements and tough election fights means that as many as 150 new faces may appear in Congress next year. They will have to be "educated" by lobbyists about the bill, and it's not certain that the pro-NAFTA business lobby has the support it needs to do the job. "A much broader coalition, including ethnic groups, port authorities, labor and farm groups, and cities, is going to be necessary," says Norman A. Bailey, a Washington economics consultant.

Even in the free-trade Senate, where the fast-track NAFTA vote was approved 59-36, quick NAFTA ratification is no longer considered a sure thing. An amendment sponsored by Senator Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) would change the Senate rules under which NAFTA would be considered, effectively giving members the opportunity to rewrite the pact. The Riegle proposal would allow floor amendments to the agreement in five areas: labor standards, environmental standards, unemployment and retraining benefits, rules of origin, and dispute settlement. Riegle's resolution, which already has 30 co-sponsors, would not be subject to a veto by President Bush.

The Bush reelection campaign may be the free-trade pact's best friend in Washington. The Administration wants an agreement initialed by Aug. 1 and signed by Nov. 1. Bush strategists are firmly convinced that the issue is a winner in the vote-rich border states of California and Texas and that it may help the President regain the Hispanic support he has lost to Ross Perot, who opposes key provisions of NAFTA.

TRAP AHEAD. The Bushies also figure a NAFTA deal could hurt Democrat Bill Clinton. The likely nominee supports a trade agreement. But if congressional Democrats who supported the 1988 trade deal with Canada vote against NAFTA, they leave themselves open to charges of racial insensitivity. "The Republicans can ask why Democrats supported a free-trade agreement in 1988 with white Canadians but not with brown Mexicans in 1992," says Alan Reynolds, director of economic research at the conservative Hudson Institute.

Despite the pitfalls, NAFTA still has a better-than-even chance to pass the Congress early next year, especially ifit is accompanied by strong guarantees of a border cleanup, provisions for Mexican workers' rights, and U.S. worker protections. Recognizing that, some broom-makers are quietly seeking along phaseout of up to 15 years for the broom tariff. "Otherwise," says one, "what's a 50-year-old broom-winder going to do?"

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