Central America Trade Deal a Hard Sell

Having passed the 100-day mark in his second term, President Bush has already harvested most of the low-hanging fruit from the legislative tree on that big hill where Pennsylvania Avenue begins.

Larger Republican majorities in both the House and Senate have yielded the Oval Office a respectable crop of bills — stricter rules for bankruptcy filings, shifting class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts, and approving another $76 billion to fuel the Pentagon's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now comes the tough part. The issues the president wants now will be harder to harvest. Congress has shown little enthusiasm for the president's push to restructure and partially privatize Social Security; a potentially institution-paralyzing fight looms in the Senate over the federal court candidates the president insisted on renominating; and the Senate, even as it continues its regular work, is daring Mr. Bush to exercise the first veto of his presidency by pushing for a highway bill whose price tag exceeds the limit set by the White House.

Did I mention trade? Have you heard President Bush mention trade? If you haven't, that may change very soon. That's because the president now seems left with little choice but to dust off a trade deal he signed nearly a year ago and send it to Congress for ratification. What's at stake is the credibility of the United States in keeping a forward momentum in the often fractious and politically fraught movement for worldwide trade liberalization. What's also at stake is Mr. Bush's own credibility as a second term president — and whether he's able to keep moving his agenda through a Congress whose Republican majorities may be more concerned about winning next year's midterm elections than about keeping chief presidential adviser Karl Rove happy.

The trade deal in question is the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. It's something of a logical progression from the NAFTA trade pact with Mexico and Canada that Congress ratified and President Clinton signed in 1993. And its backers, including Mr. Bush, hope it will help keep hope alive among the Western Hemisphere's nations for the long-promised but repeatedly postponed Pan-American trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Even when he put his signature on CAFTA last May, the president knew another trade deal was likely to be a hard sell in Congress — after all, the renewal of so-called fast track trade deal negotiating authority for the administration, had squeaked through the House in 2002 by just one vote. NAFTA had turned a $2 billion trade surplus with Mexico into a $45 billion deficit with that country. American firms had closed their factories on this side of the border to set up shop in Mexico. And undocumented Mexicans continued to sneak across the border despite the trade deal that was supposed to keep them home. What's more, expanded trade with China has led to huge trade deficits with that nation, with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress charging that China's cheating on trade agreements.

Given that adverse climate and the political reality that lawmakers faced in last November's elections, the White House made no effort last year to send CAFTA to Capitol Hill. But the first anniversary of the pact's signing comes up later this month and the White House is now pushing for congressional action. Ohio Republican Rob Portman has left the House for the cabinet-level job of U.S. Trade Representative, and his extensive ties with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will surely help the Bush administration make its case for CAFTA. Moreover, the president's meeting at the White House with Central American leaders this week shines an even brighter spotlight on a trade deal that's been largely ignored by the general public.

The problem, of course, is that many in Congress still aren't buying CAFTA. Even some members who consider themselves free traders, such as California House Democrat Ellen Tauscher, say they can't vote for the trade deal as it stands today. Tauscher's opposition is significant; she heads a group of 40 centrist House Democrats whose support for CAFTA is seen as crucial. But so far, only a couple of House Democrats have said they're backing the trade deal.

The Senate appears even less inclined to back CAFTA. Opponents cite everything from what they see as inadequate labor and environmental protections to concerns that the deal will eliminate more U.S. textile jobs. The most widespread and powerful objection, though, has to do with the most protected of all U.S. farm products: sugar. CAFTA would nearly double quotas for the amount of sugar Central America nations can export to the United States, a prospect that's set off alarm bells from the cane fields of the Gulf Coast states to the sugar beet farms of the Upper Midwest.

CAFTA's proponents claim the increased quotas don't amount to much — perhaps a tablespoon a week more per U.S. inhabitant — but opponents say the deal sets a new and dangerous precedent for potential future deals with Brazil and other major sugar producers.

Lawmakers can't tinker with CAFTA — under the rules of "fast track" consideration, they can only vote for or against the whole package. But individual members can push for side agreements with the administration in exchange for their support. This is what's known as "loading the Christmas tree" with promises of bridges and other shows of federal largess.

Even such traditional favors may be difficult to deliver, though, with the White House demanding an austere budget that effectively cuts funding for most domestic programs. And swing voters such as California's Tauscher and her fellow centrist Democrats say they won't settle for the customary side deals. They want substantive changes in the trade deal itself or CAFTA won't win their support.

But to make such changes, the Bush administration trade team would have to return to the negotiating table with the Central American nations involved. And that might further erode faith both here and abroad in the United States' ability to keep moving ahead on trade. That's because such tinkering would likely entail more sweeteners for the U.S. sugar industry. And that in turn could send a signal that domestic political and economic protectionist interests will ultimately trump truly free trade ideals in Washington.

Still, the campaign for CAFTA remains in an early phase on the Hill. The bill itself is being rolled out for prime time exposure in Washington, but its real timetable may be longer than it seems. Mr. Bush may have to do what he's done with Social Security over the past few months: using his bully pulpit to try to sell a skeptical nation on a major policy change. But as with Social Security, the prospects for success appear dubious at best.

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