ONCE AGAIN the textile industry is pushing legislation to protect it from foreign competition, and once again Congress is cooperating. The purposeof the current bill is to keep the prices of fabric and clothing higher than they would be in an open market. The bill, according to the Bush administration, would cost American consumers $30 billion a year. The Senate passed it last week by a vote of 68 to 32. How's that for defending the consumer from the appetites of special interests? The bill is moving rapidly toward a vote in the House.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) described this bill as a step toward "passing on to our children an America with a strong manufacturing base." In fact protectionism distorts and weakens a country's industrial base. Throughout the world, particularly in Latin America, countries that have devoted decades to protectionist experiments are now abandoning them and moving to open their markets. The Senate wants to go the other way.
Imports of textiles and clothing into this country are already severely limited by quotas under international agreements that the United States has signed with exporting countries. The Senate bill, drastically tightening the quotas, would violate those agreements. Even more dangerous, it would knock dead the whole process of world trade negotiations -- it's known as the Uruguay Round -- now in its final stages. The United States wants better access to foreign markets for its agriculture and industry. The poor countries are willing to talk about that, but there are a few things that they want in return. One is a wider opportunity to sell their products here, including textiles. The market in textiles and clothing includes thousands of categories of products. China and Korea will have the advantage in some, Italy and France in others, the Americans in still others.
The protectionists argue that American textiles can never compete with low-wage production abroad. That, too, is wrong. Much of the American industry is using highly advanced technology that enables it to operate very successfully on world markets. If the protectionists are right, why have American textile exports been rising rapidly? If the American producers can't compete with low-wage countries, how come American manufacturers are increasing their sales of clothing in Mexico?
The Senate has voted for the position that American producers have a right to sell as much as they can anywhere abroad, but foreigners ought to be kept under strict quotas when they try to sell here. That's statesmanship for you. Will the House agree?