YESTERDAY THE House passed an extension to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows poor African countries preferential access to the U.S. market. Since its passage four years ago, this law has created an estimated 150,000 jobs in Africa, stimulated some $340 million in private investment and boosted Africa's annual exports by perhaps $1 billion. Giving Africa this access costs the United States almost nothing; the business that Africa wins comes at the expense of other developing countries, particularly in Asia's textile industry. Because Africa has fared worse than any other continent over the past three decades, the United States has an interest in extending it special assistance. An Africa that cannot get onto the development escalator, and that remains too weak to control environmental degradation, the spread of disease and other problems with international consequences, serves nobody's interest. That is why the extension of the Africa law commanded overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and passed yesterday by a voice vote.
The Senate, however, is a different story. Most senators support extended African trade access, but they do not care enough to give the measure the momentum it needs to push past many procedural blocks. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) introduced a bill to extend trade access a while ago, but he rounded up only a handful of Republican co-sponsors and just three Democrats. After the House vote yesterday, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) announced that they would soon introduce a new version of the bill; given their positions as chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, there is a chance that this vehicle has an engine under the hood. It helps that the Bush administration came out in support of the measure yesterday and that the Grassley-Baucus bill is identical to the House version, meaning that it could bypass the lengthy House-Senate conference process and go directly to the president for signature.
Time is of the essence, both because of the Senate's crowded calendar and because a key provision in the existing Africa trade law expires in September. Already, orders to supply U.S. clothing retailers that might have been placed with African factories are being redirected, because by the time those orders are filled Africa's special trade access may have run out. The chief danger to the bill is therefore that a handful of senators might try to attach amendments, eating up scarce floor time and ultimately compelling the Senate leadership to drop the whole business. These would-be saboteurs must be dissuaded: The administration and the Senate leadership need to work together to see that amendments are held back.