Through patience and persistence, an unlikely coalition in Congress appears to have forged consensus on a bill to help the world’s neediest through free trade. After months of wrangling and posturing, key lawmakers appear to agree on legislation that would lower trade barriers on textiles and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa and from Caribbean Basin countries. “We’re getting close,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday.
The Senate in November approved legislation that would grant U.S. trade privileges to more than 70 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean Basin. In July, the House approved an Africa trade bill but hasn’t yet voted on legislation to expand the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which in 1983 gave Caribbean and Central American countries freer access to U.S. markets.
The African trade bill is long overdue. While some nations in Latin America and Asia have benefited from wide-ranging trade agreements, the United States has yet to pass significant trade legislation to benefit Africa. Africans are reeling from a succession of regional wars, health crises and corrupt dictators. The region badly needs duty-free access to the U.S. markets to help jump-start development.
CBI countries have been devastated by storms. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch took about 9,000 lives, left millions homeless and caused more than $8.5 billion in damage in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Hurricane George, meanwhile, caused more than $1.5 billion of damage in the Dominican Republican and Haiti. These countries, poor to begin with, face a daunting challenge in rebuilding their economies.
Lawmakers agree that something should be done to help both regions. They have been at odds, however, on a seemingly arcane but politically charged issue. While the House has pushed to allow textile and apparel imports that use African and Caribbean yarn and cotton to enter the United States duty-free, the Senate has favored granting unlimited duty-free entry only to African and Caribbean textiles that use U.S. raw materials. The House and Senate finally appear to have agreed to drop U.S. duties on a limited amount of African and Caribbean Basin textile and apparel imports that are made with local materials.
It would be a mistake for the Senate to insist on “protecting,” in effect, U.S. consumers from the choices that would come of allowing these regions to compete for their business. The United States enjoys a large trade surplus with the Caribbean region. Since 1983, two-way trade has increased despite existing restrictions, making the region the sixth largest market for U.S. goods. It could be and should be much higher. In addition, the International Trade Commission (ITC) found that U.S. imports of textiles from sub-Saharan Africa, which currently are no more than 1 percent of total textile imports, would grow to no more than 2 percent if trade legislation is passed. The imports would mainly replace demand for goods from other countries, rather than U.S. production, Charles Rangel, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, says.
The African and Caribbean nations aren’t asking for much. They want an opportunity to work their way out of poverty, calamity and U.S. protectionism. The United States should give them that chance.