The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to limit the growth of textile imports to 1 percent a year, despite a veto threat by President Bush and his assertion that the legislation would undermine global free-trade talks at a crucial stage.
The bill passed by a 68-32 vote, more than the two-thirds margin needed to override the threatened veto. While opponents said they were disappointed by the size of the victory, they expressed confidence they could pick up the votes needed to sustain a veto. The victory margin exceeded the totals in 1985 and 1988, when similar bills were passed by Congress only to be successfully vetoed by President Reagan.
"It was a cheap vote. I don't think it is an accurate reflection of where the Senate is on the textile issue," said Martin J. Lewin, an attorney representing the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
The House of Representatives still has to consider textile legislation. It is not expected to come up before September.
Beginning next year, the legislation would impose quotas on imports of textiles, clothing and shoes for all nations except Canada and Israel, which have free-trade agreements with the United States. Caribbean Basin countries would be guaranteed their 1989 level of imports.
To win votes from farm-state senators, who fear textile-producing nations would retaliate by curbing their purchases of U.S. agricultural products, the bill would allow increases in quotas for countries that increase their imports of American farm products.
The bill was aimed directly at the Uruguay Round of free-trade talks that are expected to phase out decades of restrictions by industrialized nations on imports of textiles and clothing produced in the Third World.These countries have made an end to textile quotas their price for agreeing to changes in the rules of world trade that the United States and other developed nations want -- including an end to piracy of patented pharmaceuticals, software and other products; fewer barriers to foreign investment; and free trade for service industries such as banking, insurance and engineering, where developed countries believe they have a competitive edge.
The bill's supporters argued that the textile industry would die without import restrictions.
The U.S. trade deficit in textiles jumped almost sixfold over the past decade to $26.5 billion and imports increased 12.7 percent over the past 15 months. Trade figures released yesterday showed that the textile and apparel deficit amounted to $9.2 billion for the first five months of the year, 26.3 percent of the total imbalance.
Since 1980, more than 1,800 textile and apparel plants have shut down and 400,000 textile workers have lost their jobs, reducing industry employment to 1.9 million.
Textile industry officials have blamed the plant closings and loss of jobs on imports, but administration officials said they were due to an industry-wide restructuring that included the closing of inefficient plants. The industry spent $18 billion over the last decade to modernize its facilities.
Lawmakers from textile-producing states said they are worried that the Bush administration would sacrifice their concerns to gain concessions from Third World countries in the talks to expand and strengthen the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The final push in the four-year-old trade talks begins Monday in Geneva and the complex negotiations are set to end in December."We are about to lose our shirts," said Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), one of the leading supporters of the textile quota bill. He said that trading partners in Western Europe, South America and other regions will not give in on sectors important to their economies while America makes concessions on textiles."They will not yield on agriculture in Europe. They will not yield on intellectual property rights and computers in South America," said Hollings.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) accused the Bush administration of refusing to "do anything to help the textile industry. If we do nothing, it is safe to predict the demise of the industry is at hand."
But the White House immediately issued a statement saying passage of a textile quota bill would "virtually destroy any chance of a successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round," which Bush has declared his top trade priority. The administration also said the bill would increase consumer costs and violate U.S. international trading obligations.
He was backed by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, which stayed neutral on this vote even though it traditionally has supported the textile industry. The industry said in April that its interests are best served by supporting the Uruguay Round of free-trade talks.
Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), a leading opponent, said the bill would cost consumers as much as $27 billion a year. "You do not notice it much," said Packwood. "Just 50 cents a shirt here, $1 or $1.50 a pair of shoes here, $2 a pair of shoes there. But add that up by 250 million consumers ... and for the average household ... that's a lot of money."