Showdown for NAFTA


It's remarkable how much more heat than light has been generated by the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which comes to a vote today in the House. There are few more important issues facing this country: its economic relationship with its two closest neighbors and by implication with the rest of the world. If its supporters, led by President Clinton, got off to a slow start in explaining it, its opponents have also been assiduous in obscuring what it is really about.

While lowering trade barriers often produces some dislocations -- lost jobs as well as closed businesses -- historically it has brought increased prosperity to both partners. There is little reason to believe that huge numbers of jobs would be lost to Mexico, as some union leaders fear and Ross Perot irresponsibly proclaims. Some work would head south, no doubt, but more jobs would be created here as increasingly prosperous Mexicans developed an appetite for U.S goods. That has been the pattern in developing economies all over the world.

Today's vote in the House, to be followed by another in the more favorably inclined Senate, will fracture the usual political relationships. Maryland is an apt example. Our House delegation will split evenly, but not along party lines or even on ideological lines. Two Democrats and two Republicans will vote for NAFTA, the same number against. Urban liberals and rural conservatives are on both sides. That is a clear sign that emotion as much as reason is determining votes. Maryland, after all, is a state that depends heavily on foreign trade for its own prosperity.

Aside from the knee-jerk protectionism of some union leaders and Mr. Perot's self-serving bombast, there are some reasonable arguments against NAFTA. There will be frictional unemployment trading relationships change. But the hardships can be mitigated considerably by the $140 million President Clinton has requested to retrain displaced workers. Economic growth always involves replacing some skills with others. On balance there will be more and better jobs, not fewer, for U.S. workers if NAFTA is approved.

Finally, rejection of NAFTA would be a foreign policy disaster. If Congress won't endorse an agreement negotiated by a Republican president and embraced by his Democratic successor, confidence in this country's leadership would be severely damaged. The fruits of NAFTA would enhance the nation's prosperity. Rejection would poison its relations with allies well beyond North America.

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