Nations of Africa and the Caribbean Basin would get expanded access to the U.S. clothing market under a bill the Senate passed 76 to 19 last night. With the White House lending enthusiastic help, supporters now are seeking a deal with the House to make the bill law and create the United States' first special trade relationship with Africa.
By removing tariffs and quotas, the bill seeks to help qualifying countries, which include some of the poorest in the world, to export more to the United States and earn dollars. Supporters portray it as moving the United States beyond its traditional relationship of aid donor to Africa to help the continent become a partner in global trade.
"It's a way of our being good neighbors," President Clinton told reporters in the White House Rose Garden yesterday. ". . . It's very good economics for the United States over the long run." The bill's potential "to reward the Africans that have good government and are following market economies is enormous."
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who talked up the bill by phone with close to 30 senators in the last two days, said: "This vote sends a very clear message that the United States is a reliable advocate of growth and sustainable development in Africa and in the Caribbean."
The bill had won the support of African ambassadors, leaders of the NAACP, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church and many U.S. companies. Many of its African American supporters called it only a "first step" toward helping Africa.
A coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, some garment companies and black clergy opposed the bill. Unions worried about more U.S. jobs moving abroad from a garment industry already reeling from foreign competition. The clergy said that conditions imposed on poor countries could force them to cancel crucial social programs in the name of free-market reform and give U.S. companies too much rein in their economies.
The senators passed a bill "that will harm living standards in Africa and [the Caribbean] and destroy jobs in the U.S. and they did so while falsely claiming that they are extending a helping hand to poor countries," said Scott Nova of Citizens Trade Campaign, a group that opposes the bill.
The Senate measure melds the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and the United States-Caribbean Basin Trade Enhancement Act. Action had been delayed as the bill became caught up in wrangling between Democrats and Republicans over unrelated issues as the legislative session nears its end.
The bill focuses on generating new orders for the countries' garment factories, which typically cost little to set up, consisting of rows of workers at sewing machines. Many countries, including some of the newly industrialized countries of Asia, have used such factories as a springboard to creating higher-tech industries.
The Senate bill grants import benefits only to clothes that are made from U.S. cloth, an effort to generate orders from U.S. textile factories. That was a step back from the House bill, which has no such restriction. This difference will be a sticking point in conference negotiations with the House, which passed its Africa version but did not pass a Caribbean plan.
U.S. officials say the impact on the U.S. garment industry will be small. Africa at present supplies less than 1 percent of garments and cloth the United States imports. As for the Caribbean, they say, it is only getting a deal that Mexico already has.