REP. David Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic whip, says the pending free trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada should be rejected for one major reason: "I don't want American jobs to become our No. 1 export."
Representative Bonior has joined a growing movement on Capitol Hill that is trying to send the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) down to a stunning defeat. A loss by NAFTA later this year, which is now a strong possibility, would humiliate the White House and send shockwaves through the international community.
Opponents, mostly Democrats, are organizing as the Congressional Anti-NAFTA Caucus. Their priority, they say, is US jobs. But their concerns clearly go much further.
Members talk emotionally of potential damage to the US environment. They speak of toxic threats to the safety of the US food supply. They grumble that Mexico, to which the US would be firmly linked by NAFTA, is no democracy, that labor union rights are abridged there and that corruption is rampant.
The White House has fought back, insisting that NAFTA will create thousands of high-paying US jobs, while reducing Mexico's steep unemployment rate. Tapping low-cost Mexican labor will help US firms survive the growing competition in the world marketplace, officials say.
A strong undercurrent of populism runs through the NAFTA controversy. Critics say the treaty pits the interests of large, multinational corporations against American workers - a confrontation which makes many pro-union Democrats particularly uneasy.
Rep. Bob Filner (D) of California, sounding a populist note, charges: "This agreement, negotiated by former President Bush, is a `trickle down' treaty. It is designed to benefit big corporations and exploit our resources, both human and environmental. It is free trade for big business. We want fair trade for working Americans."
Similarly, Bonior complains: "The vitality of whole communities are at stake here."
NAFTA "profits basically the elites of both countries," he says. It is "an insult to workers, not only here in America, but in Mexico."
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon denounces NAFTA as "anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-USA." He says: "The government of Mexico is going to spend in conjunction with the multinational corporations ... probably $100 million to sell this plan to the United States Congress. [But] the American people don't support this agreement."
Pro-NAFTA forces are taken aback. Some admit the treaty is in trouble, particularly in the House, though administration officials still insist it will pass.
First, however, the White House must ease several concerns about the treaty. Among the most serious:
Job loss. Under NAFTA, cars built in Mexico will enter the US duty-free. But cars built in the US, and exported to Mexico, must pay duty for another 10 years.
"It's not just autos," Bonior says. "It's steel, it's textiles, it's apparel. We will lose up to 40 percent of our jobs in those industries - good manufacturing jobs, high-paying jobs that could be lost to Mexico if this agreement goes into effect."
Environment. Mr. Clinton hopes to ease some concerns about Mexico's serious environmental problems with a special side agreement. Critics are not impressed. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R) of Maryland recently traveled to Mexico for a firsthand look, and reports: "If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then on-site inspection is worth 1,000 preconceived notions. Mexico has many more problems than I ever perceived.... The environmental pollution [along the Texas border] is all beyond belief, and in my mind, ins oluble in the near term."
Mexican workers. Critics say foreign companies already operating in Mexico often exploit workers. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D) of New York, after a visit to US-owned factories along the border, reports: "We witnessed families living in cardboard houses with no electricity or running water, where children play in fields of toxic wastes.... The environmental disaster created by the dumping of toxic waste [by the factories] is an indicator of things to come under NAFTA."
Food safety. Opponents say food grown in Mexico could threaten US consumers because of unsanitary growing conditions, including sewage-tainted irrigation water and unsafe pesticides.
Representative DeFazio says: "Under this agreement, many [rules] that we consider essential to our health and safety, like not drinking coffee laced with DDT, would be considered to be unfair trade barriers...." That is, the US might not be allowed to keep out certain products, even if they violated US laws.
Lower US wages. Under this agreement, US workers would be "in constant fear of losing their jobs," Representative Velazquez says. "Never before have three countries with such disparate standards of living proposed economic integration."
Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the only independent in the House, explains: "What the free trade agreement with Mexico is about is asking American workers who make 10 bucks an hour...[to] compete against desperate people in Mexico who are working for a buck an hour.... Corporations in America are saying to American workers, `Why should we pay you a living wage when we have desperate people...who will work for almost nothing?' "
* Tomorrow: NAFTA's job-creating potential.