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Free trade isn't free of partisan politics

September 26, 2005|Daniel P. Erikson and Eric Jacobstein | DANIEL P. ERIKSON is director of Caribbean programs and ERIC JACOBSTEIN is manager of legislative affairs at the Inter-American Dialogue.

BITTER PARTISANSHIP is putting the United States' trade agenda in the Americas in serious jeopardy. Faced with dim prospects for a hemisphere-wide free trade area, the Bush administration has focused on strengthening trade ties with Latin America through the creation of smaller, regional pacts such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was ratified by Congress earlier this year.

The next phase of this strategy encompasses the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (with Bolivia participating as an observer). But to succeed, the White House must address the way the CAFTA vote crystallized deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats that threaten to undermine economic integration in the hemisphere.

The White House deservedly claims CAFTA as an important triumph, but the nature of the victory confirmed the near-total collapse of a bipartisan trade consensus in Washington. CAFTA was passed by Congress on July 27, but only after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay stayed up past midnight twisting arms to produce a 217-215 vote. More than 90% of Democrats united in opposition to CAFTA; only 15 broke ranks to support the agreement.

Much of the divisiveness can be attributed to the process of redistricting, which has created safe Democratic or Republican seats -- the only real contest occurs in the primary elections. As a result, core party constituencies, such as labor unions and industry lobbies, have become disproportionately empowered.

In the case of CAFTA, most Democrats followed the lead of the AFL-CIO, and both parties came under pressure from the U.S. sugar lobby to oppose the agreement. In response, the Republican leadership embarked on a furious campaign of side deals with members of their own party, including multimillion-dollar pork-barrel projects and promises that administration officials would campaign in their districts. President Bush even made a rare visit to Capitol Hill the day of the vote to rally support.

The partisanship was made worse because Democrats felt that they were not sufficiently consulted in crafting the CAFTA accord. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York -- the lead Democrat on the House committee that has jurisdiction over U.S. trade policy -- argued that "the Bush administration ignored virtually all Democrats when it negotiated this CAFTA." (The White House added the Dominican Republic to the pact in an effort to win Rangel's support -- his constituency has strong Dominican ties -- but by then internal party pressure to oppose CAFTA had solidified; Rangel voted against the pact.)

By failing to woo Democrats, the White House ceded political ground to anti-CAFTA stalwarts such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In fact, Pelosi became so incensed by the number of Democrats who defected in favor of the trade accord that she threatened possible punishment on "a case-by-case basis" for those who broke with the party line.

Amid Washington's polarization, these tensions threaten to derail the proposed trade deal with the Andean countries. And yet, the Andean agreement is a crucial building block for the hemispheric trade agenda. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru represent a $7.7-billion export market for the United States. They are on the front line in the war on drugs, so their prosperity and stability are crucial strategic concerns for the U.S. as well.

The ongoing Andean trade negotiations present Bush with the opportunity to begin to construct a more viable consensus on trade in Congress. As a first step, the administration should form a working group of pro-trade Republicans and Democrats to discuss compromises to push ahead the U.S. trade agenda. Trade policy will never be free of politics, but greater bipartisanship is essential if the U.S. is to become a more reliable ally for its key partners in Latin America.

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