Helen Delich Bentley, the Republican congresswoman for Maryland's Second District, is an equal-opportunity protectionist.
Having acquired an international reputation by taking a sledgehammer to a Toshiba boombox made by the rich Japanese, she lately has gone south of the Rio Grande to weep tears for the poor Mexicans -- this in hopes of bashing the pending North American Free Trade Agreement to bits.
Mrs. Bentley is anything but inconsistent. Given a choice between a liberal flow of goods, services and capital across international borders and erecting trade barriers around the mightiest and wealthiest maritime nation the world has ever seen, Representative Bentley votes protectionist every time.
We don't doubt Mrs. Bentley was much affected by the plight of Mexicans she saw working for low wages in foul conditions in Matamoros this month. But the full picture should also include a hard look at conditions in the dirt-poor Mexican villages whence they came or at the advances being made by Mexican workers where industry has made the jump from assemblage to manufacturing. Is the congresswoman suggesting that the Mexican workers she saw would be better off without American investment and trade? It won't wash.
The fact is that Mrs. Bentley did not go to Mexico with eight other congresswomen, all of them Democrats, for the purpose of evoking compassion for a neighboring population. They went in order to buttress their case for opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement. They went to protect the jobs of their constituents.
This is a perfectly normal activity for election-minded politicians. Which is one reason why NAFTA is in trouble in the House of Representatives.
The "great sucking noise" (Ross Perot's phrase) of jobs going south is only one piece of the puzzle. There also is a "great sucking noise" as U.S. exports flow southward to buttress these overseas operations and to serve an expanding Mexican market. Since Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari opened his country to foreign investment and trade, the U.S. trade balance with Mexico has flipped from a deficit to a $6 billion surplus, producing a net gain of 400,000 U.S. jobs.
Legislators opposed to NAFTA should think long and hard about the message that would go forth to Mexico and all of Latin America if the Congress were to reject a treaty drafted by President Bush and accepted by President Clinton. Not only would this sour U.S. relations with the hemisphere; it would undercut U.S. leadership in the worldwide reforms still being negotiated under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Mrs. Bentley is right to be concerned about any number of human rights flaws that still exist in Mexico. She is wrong if she thinks they will be pushed further along toward solution if this country turns its back on its neighbor.