Maryland's stake in NAFTA


When Congress returns from its summer break, the hottest item on its agenda will be the pending North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. The White House waited until lawmakers were away from Washington before concluding side accords fulfilling President Clinton's campaign pledge to add environmental and labor standards safeguards to the agreement.

Now Mr. Clinton has the task of containing a rebellion in his own Democratic Party, one that has already seen the defection of House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. Republicans who solidly opposed him on his budget bill are strongly behind a treaty that originated with President Bush.

Maryland's William Donald Schaefer is one of 41 governors who are backing the treaty (only nine are opposed). He knows, as do his counterparts, that exports create jobs and the huge Mexican market, with 80 million consumers, buys 70 percent of its imports from the United States. Hence, he is willing to defy the labor leaders and environmental zealots who can pressure legislators so effectively. Governors, after all, have to deal with the real world and the economies of their states.

Whether Mr. Schaefer can turn around such NAFTA critics as Reps. Helen Delich Bentley, Kweisi Mfume and Albert Wynn as well as Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski is questionable. But he is out front on this issue and may be able to keep Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, Constance Morella, Steny Hoyer, Benjamin Cardin and Roscoe Bartlett in line.

There is an old Mexican lament about being so far from heaven and so close to the United States. But Maryland is not Texas. It is far from the Rio Grande and so the case needs to be made that this maritime state has a real stake in slashing the tariffs and other impediments that hinder trade with Mexico. NAFTA foes will charge that the treaty will lure jobs and factories to Mexico. Some undoubtedly will go. Yet many already have gone to escape the barriers that the treaty will eliminate. If the Maryland delegation in Congress is to be kept from being a hindrance to the treaty, Governor Schaefer and the Maryland business community will have to do a selling job based on facts.

Politicians seeking election to Congress or the governorship next year should be held accountable for their stands on NAFTA. This is not some esoteric piece of legislation. It affects the security and competitiveness of the North American continent, the pace of immigration from Mexico -- and the prospects for exporting manufacturing goods, farm products and financial services south of the border. We hope the Maryland delegation in Congress will give NAFTA firm support.

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