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Florida Is Torn Over 'Fast Track' Trade-Offs

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 1997;
Page A01

LAKELAND, Fla.—From its abandoned tomato fields and worried citrus growers to Miami's curious alliance with Chile in the hemispheric salmon wars, Florida helps explain why the "fast track" trade bill died in Congress this year – and why it could spring back to life next year.

With its diverse economy and kaleidoscopic politics, Florida is pulled in one direction by its bountiful but fragile agriculture while its thriving trade pushes it the other way. Its congressional delegation is similarly torn, with senators favoring the bill and most of Florida's House members opposing it.

The result is a case study of the conflicting pressures that Congress faced when it sidetracked President Clinton's request to renew expanded trade negotiating authority and will face again if Clinton, as he has suggested, makes the request again. It also points up the key role that agriculture – in a marriage of convenience with labor unions, environmentalists and other unfamiliar allies – plays in the nation's trade politics.

But even among Florida's fast-track foes, who see long-term gains from expanded trade while fearing they will not survive to enjoy them, there is an ambivalence that could give Clinton a second chance, so long as he moves more forcefully than before to address complaints arising from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

To get more votes from a state such as Florida, there would have to be stronger enforcement of fair-trade rules, more vigorous retaliation when the rules are violated and probably continued tariffs for citrus, according to some key players.

"We know free trade is good," said Martha Roe Burke, a Winter Haven citrus grower and member of the Florida Citrus Commission. "What we're trying to do is navigate across and stay intact in the process."

Her point was underscored last week when U.S. Agriculture Department officials proudly noted during a citrus commission meeting here that Florida farm exports reached $1.2 billion last year, a 20 percent increase in two years. But export gains barely cover losses from increased imports, complained citrus grower James T. Griffiths. "With NAFTA there was supposed to be an opening to Mexico, but all it did was open Florida to Mexico," he said in a conversation after the meeting.

While dairy products were far less affected by NAFTA, Kenneth Smith, who milks 225 cows on a farm north of Tampa, is also worried. He regards himself as a free trader but believes NAFTA's extension to other countries, such as Brazil, would be "devastating to Florida agriculture" as a whole. With an eye on global competition as well as his expanding three-generation family, Smith calculates he must triple his operation to stay afloat, and he plans to do so next year.

To see why Florida looks upon trade through so many different lenses, consider the tomato, the orange and the salmon.

As the winter fruit and vegetable basket for the country, Florida became "ground zero" for fallout from NAFTA, according to Ray Gilmer, communications director for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. The treaty's ratification led to a massive flow of money into agriculture in Mexico, producing tomatoes and other winter crops in direct competition with Florida's. "Then came the devaluation of the peso, which not only made export sales cheaper but shriveled sales within Mexico," added John Van Sickle, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Florida.

The result in Florida was devastating, Gilmer and Van Sickle agreed. Within five years, 115 to 120 of the state's 200 tomato farmers were out of business, according to Gilmer.

Growers in Florida's huge citrus industry, with at least $1.5 billion in annual sales, figure they are next.

The Clinton administration is aiming ultimately to extend NAFTA to all of the Americas, although approval of key House and Senate committees would be required before the procedure could be used for countries other than Chile. If the United States eliminated all trade barriers against importation of citrus products from Brazil, which is Florida's main competitor in orange concentrate, the state's producers fear a worse wipeout than that suffered by tomato growers.

Already 25 to 40 percent of Florida's processing capacity for orange concentrate has been purchased by Brazilian interests, according to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). Even with existing tariffs on Brazilian imports, dairyman Smith said, a processing plant near his farm is mixing Brazilian with Florida concentrate to keep down costs.

Then there is the fish from Chile.

Instead of fighting to keep out foreign salmon, Miami-Dade County has opened its doors, literally. With nearly 40,000 tons of Chilean salmon pouring annually into the country through Miami International Airport, the county earlier this month intervened on Chile's behalf in a trade case brought by the U.S. salmon industry to curtail Chilean imports. Citing a University of South Florida study, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas said 1,600 jobs and more than $20 million in salaries were at stake.

Given these conflicting interests, it is no surprise that Florida's congressional delegation came down firmly on both sides of the fast-track bill, which would renew Clinton's expired authority to negotiate agreements that Congress would then be able to accept or reject but not amend – the procedure that was used for NAFTA.

Its two senators, Graham and Republican Connie Mack, with a statewide outlook, six-year terms and relatively secure seats, lined up in favor of the legislation.

But, according to an unofficial count, 16 of its 23 House members, feeling stronger local pressures and the vulnerability of elections every two years, were prepared to vote against the bill before it was withdrawn by Clinton to avoid defeat. Only four years earlier, the Florida House delegation split 13 to 10 in favor of NAFTA.

About half of Florida's likely "no" votes in the House were influenced by agricultural concerns and by Florida farmers' painful experience with NAFTA, according to several assessments. In the House as a whole, agriculture was the dominant reason for 20 of the prospective "no" votes and an influential factor for another 30 – more than enough to make the difference, according to anti-fast-track nose counters.

The contradiction between Florida's votes in the Senate and House is also explained by statistics on Florida's economy. While agriculture produced $6 billion for Florida last year, providing a major source of wealth for many House districts, exports generated $25 billion from other areas, largely from production of industrial machinery, computers, other electronic equipment and chemicals. Trade-related services contributed even more.

Graham and Rep. Karen L. Thurman (D-Fla.) help explain the paradox. While both are moderate Democrats with ties to Florida agriculture, they wound up on opposite sides of the fast-track issue, as they did on NAFTA.

With family roots in the sugar fields and citrus groves of southern Florida, Graham is a longtime free-trader who has inoculated himself against political injury from his trade votes by befriending agriculture in scores of other ways. He is heavily favored to win reelection next year. "Senator Graham has generated a lot of good will in our industry. He has an open door and an open mind, and we want to keep it that way," said an anti-fast-track representative of grower interests, who asked not to be identified by name.

As Graham sees it, Florida's future is part of a global economy, anchored by its pivotal position in both American hemispheres. He cites a sign in Miami that first read "Gateway to Latin America," was changed to read "Bridge to Latin America" and now reads "Capital of the Americas."

Thurman's district sprawls along west-central Florida south from Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, to just north of Clearwater. Farms are still important, although retirement is its dominant industry. The district is Florida's second poorest, with its second largest concentration of retirees. While it is becoming increasingly Republican, like the rest of Florida, Thurman has survived there since 1992 and has no Republican opponent as yet for next year.

Even though farming is no longer a live-or-die political cause in her district, Thurman has based her political career on advancing Florida agriculture and sees it as worth defending for environmental and social as well as economic reasons. "If we lose Florida's agricultural base, we become dependent, more than likely, on other countries for our food, which I have a real problem with," she said. "And if you lose the land, you lose it forever."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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