- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

Congress is taking notice of increasing job losses among U.S. furniture manufacturers as overseas competitors, especially China, grab more of the market.

The Congressional Furnishings Caucus meets for the first time today, led by two North Carolina congressmen, Republican Howard Coble and Democrat Melvin Watt.

There are 131 caucuses registered by the House office of member services — from the Air Force Caucus to the Zero Capital Gains Caucus.

About 20 congressmen are expected to join Mr. Coble and Mr. Watt today for a briefing on the furniture industry and legislation designed to help domestic manufacturers export their products.

The end purpose is “promoting and protecting the interests of the American home- and commercial-furnishings manufacturing industry,” the congressmen said in a letter to colleagues.

Nationwide job losses in the furniture industry prompted creation of the caucus, said a spokesman for Mr. Coble. Almost 70,000 North Carolina residents work in the furniture industry — but 3,800 lost their jobs last year, according to an analysis by Wachovia Corp.

Furniture-manufacturing employment reached a 10-year peak in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when as many as 559,000 Americans worked in the industry.

As of April, industry employment was down 16.5 percent from that peak to 467,000.

The industry blames a slow economy for part of the losses, but likes to focus on China’s growing market share to explain much of the problem.

The residential wood-furniture industry has lost about one-third of its market share to imports during the last decade, according to a U.S. Forest Service report published in March.

China accounts for one-third of those imports, up from zero a decade ago, the report said.

“There’s no easy answer to this,” said Russ Batson, vice president for government affairs at the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, a High Point, N.C.-based group that represents makers of wood furniture for the home market.

U.S. companies made $10.7 billion in wood household furniture last year, AFMA said.

The trade group will brief the new caucus today on the state of the industry.

Furniture makers would like members of the new congressional caucus to draw attention to some of China’s trade practices that violate World Trade Organization rules, Mr. Batson said.

China joined the WTO in December 2001.

U.S. taxes and regulations also make domestic firms less competitive compared with some foreign competition — another matter Congress should address, Mr. Batson said.

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