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No strings attached

Congress should avoid the political entanglements and pass a trade bill vital to Africa's clothing makers.

November 27, 2006

OF ALL THE free-trade pacts signed by the United States over the last decade, perhaps none is as uncontroversial as the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Providing duty-free access to exporters in sub-Saharan Africa threatens few if any American jobs while spurring industry in some of the poorest countries in the world. Yet a vital provision of the act is set to expire, and, for the moment, Congress appears more interested in political gamesmanship than in making a painless decision to help some of the world's neediest people.

The language in question involves African clothing made from non-African fabric. Because of a scarcity of fabric mills, apparel makers in countries such as Kenya and Lesotho have to import most of their raw material from elsewhere -- usually Asia. That adds considerable expense and time, so duty-free status is about the only thing that keeps African clothing makers competitive in the U.S. market.

If that provision is not renewed in September 2007, as many as 150,000 jobs in Africa's fledgling apparel industry might be lost. Ten months might seem a long time away, but an extension is urgently needed now because apparel companies typically place their orders from nine to 12 months in advance.

The last time an extension of an AGOA provision came up, in 2004, it passed unanimously in both houses of Congress. This time, things have become more political. Though extending the third-country fabric provision still enjoys broad bipartisan support -- even the fiercely protectionist U.S. textile industry isn't opposing it -- the bill may be folded into a much broader and more controversial piece of trade legislation.

Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, outgoing chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is said to be working on a package that would bundle the AGOA with various tax breaks and trade priorities, such as a free-trade pact with Andean nations and new preferences for Haitian apparel, that are heavily opposed by American textile producers. It's a mostly worthwhile package that will face serious opposition in an increasingly protectionist House -- one that will get even more anti-trade when the Democrats take control in January.

The livelihoods of too many people are at stake. Thomas should expedite the AGOA bill as is, rather than allow it to be held hostage by his other priorities. And the Democrats who will be taking over the House need to understand that poverty isn't confined to Africa; trade deals with Haiti and the Andes are just as important, even if they stir more opposition from U.S. unions and manufacturers. You cannot credibly claim to weep for the poor while simultaneously blocking them from selling you shirts. Trade is exponentially more powerful than aid, and deeds mean more than words.

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