WASHINGTON -- When Rep. Helen Delich Bentley took a maul to a Toshiba boom box in front of photographers at the Capitol in 1987, that event established her in the eyes of many Americans as a severe critic of U.S. trade policy.
Now the Baltimore County Republican's increasingly visible opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement may eclipse boom-box bashing as the defining moment in her congressional career -- particularly if the opposition which she is helping to lead prevails.
Last week, after President Clinton had begun the administration's push for approval of the agreement with Canada and Mexico, Mrs. Bentley appeared on national television with Rep. David E. Bonior, the House majority whip, as a spokeswoman for the treaty opposition.
Then she went to Lansing, Mich. to speak at an anti-NAFTA rally that featured Ross Perot as the star attraction. Her travel costs, said Mrs. Bentley, were paid by rally organizers -- an odd alliance of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Mrs. Bentley was invited by the rally's organizer, Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan, whom the GOP has targeted as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in next year's election.
A Riegle aide said Mrs. Bentley was invited because she is a high-profile, well-informed opponent of the agreement and was one of the eight female House members who went to Mexico in May to look into working conditions and the treaty.
The agreement, which would eliminate most trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada, must be approved by the House and Senate. The treaty faces an uphill battle in the House, which is expected to vote first.
First to oppose treaty
In the Maryland delegation, Mrs. Bentley, now considering a run for governor, was the first to declare opposition. She has been joined by fellow Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett and Democrats Albert R. Wynn and Kweisi Mfume.
Mr. Mfume says that, based on what he has seen, he is opposed, but adds that he is willing to listen to the administration's arguments for the agreement.
The only members of the delegation who have announced their support are Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Constance A. Morella.
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny Hoyer, all Democrats strongly supported by organized labor, which opposes the deal, say they have not made up their minds.
Constituents weigh in
Mail and telephone calls to the Maryland legislators are running overwhelmingly against the treaty, but, say aides, the volume has not reached the intensity produced by some other issues earlier this year, for example gays in the military or the administration's deficit reduction plan.
Mrs. Bentley's staff has spent hours reading and analyzing the agreement to produce arguments against it and she is working tirelessly to lobby members of the House. How many votes she can turn is a matter for conjecture.
Mrs. Bentley is "an effective communicator" whose long-time advocacy of the economic viability of the port of Baltimore gives her credibility outside Congress, notes Mr. Cardin. But, says the Baltimore Democrat, her opposition to the trade agreement is no surprise on Capitol Hill because "she is probably the strongest philosophical opponent of trade agreements in the House." Thus, she is unlikely to sway votes.
In comparison, the decision of House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a trade expert with considerable influence on the issue among fellow Democrats, to oppose the deal is considered a serious blow to its chances.
Mrs. Bentley says she is making progress with colleagues and expects to prevail.
"It's an uphill battle," she adds. "You've got the whole administration, you've got five ex-presidents and all the lobbyists in the world against you."
Two of those former presidents are fellow Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
"I've never agreed with Reagan and Bush on trade because they were free trade and I'm fair trade," she said in an interview.
The loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs caused by imports, particularly those from South Korea and Japan, has left the United States weakened economically, she said. Asian workers who make the shoes formerly made by Americans, for example, do not pay U.S. taxes.
And, she adds, "One of the reasons that you've got all these problems in the cities today is these young unskilled minority people have nowhere to go for jobs. There are only so many service jobs. When you had a thriving manufacturing economy, there was more of a need for more service jobs. And that's part of our economic problem today."
Beyond the further loss of U.S. jobs threatened by the trade agreement, she sees a surrender of U.S. sovereignty in the deal. Trade disputes would be turned over to an international panel from which there would be no appeal to U.S. courts. And, she adds, state laws would be superseded by the agreement.
Wants new agreement
Like other opponents of the agreement, she advocates negotiation of a new arrangement similar to that the European Community worked out with Greece, Spain and Portugal for gradual integration into the Common Market, an agreement that set minimum political and legal goals.
"We've made no requirement of Mexico to get a democratic government in there, to give up their corruption, to have a judiciary system that is fair," she said.
An agreement patterned after the European Community approach "would be helping Mexican workers by bringing them up to our standards and at the same time protect our workers."
"If that's protectionist, then God bless me."