''Melissa Bean's Brave Vote''
Chicago Tribune, 07/29/05
The US renewed its commitment to free trade early Thursday when the House narrowly passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, 217-215. This welcome vote will resonate worldwide and it would not have happened without the courage of several House Democrats - Illinois' Melissa Bean included.
Bean bucked her party to vote for this trade treaty because she believes it will help create jobs and expand markets for companies in her district. CAFTA will eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of US exports to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Most goods those countries export to the US already come here duty-free.
Good for her. The freshman from the far north and northwest suburbs took a brave and principled stand on CAFTA. She was the only Illinois Democrat, and one of only 15 House Democrats, to vote yes.
This also was a risky vote for Bean, and she may pay a price for it. On the eve of the vote, labor leaders warned in a letter to Democratic congressional leaders that those who voted "wrong" - meaning "yes" - would face "real and measurable consequences."
So be it - provided Bean's constituents appreciate how right she was to vote the way she did. Bean saw beyond the knee-jerk opposition to freer trade. She embraced CAFTA's potential to strengthen the US economy and to strengthen American ties with these six nations.
"Turning our back on Central America's fledgling democracies by rejecting this agreement is simply not an answer," she said in supporting CAFTA.
Precisely. Strengthen ties. Increase trade. Open markets. Reduce barriers. Create opportunities. Free trade has been the road to prosperity for those nations that embrace it. But that whole notion is now under fierce attack in a rapidly changing and angst-ridden world.
That was evident in the heated debate that led up to Thursday's vote. The CAFTA treaty took on symbolism way beyond its economic impact; collectively, the output of these six nations is less than one-fifth the size of the Illinois economy.
CAFTA became a referendum on President Bush's broader free trade agenda--and a lightning rod for overarching worries about globalization, the loss of jobs and the rise of China.
US passage of CAFTA (it already has passed the Senate and the president will eagerly sign it) gives a much-needed boost to ongoing talks aimed at further liberalizing trade worldwide.
The World Trade Organization's Doha negotiating round, begun four years ago, is in danger of foundering over agricultural subsidies paid by rich nations to protect their farmers from competitors in poor nations. The $300 billion the US, Japan and Europe pay their farmers each year to prop up prices and keep out competitors is the major sticking point in the WTO talks.
Poor countries are reluctant to eliminate their tariff barriers to manufactured goods and services unless rich countries lower the agricultural barriers that keep their exports out.
Right now, it's a standoff. Bean displayed courage in voting for a trade treaty opposed by her own party and its supporters. She did the right thing for her district, her state and her country.
The Bush Administration will have to display similar courage this fall to tackle US farm subsidies.
That, too, is the right thing to do.
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