If the North American Free Trade Agreement is approved in the House next week by only one or two votes, as was the case with President Clinton's budget bill, Maryland Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny H. Hoyer could be said to have made the difference. Their declared support for NAFTA, just hours before last night's televised debate between Vice President Al Gore and populist Ross Perot, was a tough vote for both congressmen.
They had been cajoled to vote otherwise by organized labor, which in past elections has contributed heavily to the Hoyer and Cardin campaigns. But in the end these two strategically placed Marylanders did what they think -- and we think -- was right for the country. They said they would support NAFTA even as its opponents were claiming they have the votes to defeat it.
Mr. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the agreement binding the United States, Mexico and Canada into the world's largest free trade area was really "about the future of America. . . in a world in which no nation can close its doors and expect to prosper." Mr. Cardin, the first Marylander to sit on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in half a century, said he believed "NAFTA will create jobs and economic growth in Maryland and the nation."
Both congressmen openly expressed pain at breaking with Big Labor on this issue. Mr. Cardin said this made NAFTA "a very difficult issue to resolve" personally. Mr. Hoyer said he knew the unions were "passionately" against the trade pact and vowed he would seek retraining for displaced workers and remedies included in the treaty itself to offset adverse economic impacts.
With Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hoyer joining two Maryland Republicans -- Wayne Gilchrest and Constance Morella -- in support of NAFTA, the administration was assured of an even break in the eight-member delegation. Had the two fence-sitters gone the other way, Maryland Democrats would have been unanimous against the treaty -- a perverse position for a maritime state heavily dependent on foreign trade.
If NAFTA passes the House and goes to the Senate, we expect Democratic Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski to pay attention to the principled stand taken by Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hoyer.