Let's be clear. The ramming of the Central American Free Trade Agreement through the U.S. House early last Thursday morning had more to do with power politics than with sound trade policy.
The House leaders managed to give President Bush a victory by the narrowest of margins, 217 to 215, by holding the voting open for an hour rather than the traditional 15 minutes. They twisted just enough arms to shift the numbers into the victory column. As soon speaker Dennis Hastert had the votes he needed, he brought down the gavel. Interestingly, two Republicans claimed the next day that they voted against CAFTA, but a glitch in the electronic voting system kept their votes from being counted. You'd think that Congress could afford a more reliable system. Another Republican said she would have voted against CAFTA, but got tied up in traffic.
The accord eventually eliminates tariffs and other trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republican.
The argument that saved the day for the president and other CAFTA backers had nothing to do with trade. Republican leaders made a partisan appeal to their members, arguing that defeating CAFTA would embarrass their president.
The bigger argument, whether this treaty is good for American workers, wasn't even on the administration's radar screen. Indeed, in the course of arguing for passage, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who was in charge of bringing party renegades back into line, remarked: "It's not a big market. It's like having a free trade agreement with New Jersey," Blunt said.
Which ought to give any member of the U.S. House of Representatives pause. Obviously, this New Jersey sized piece of the Third World isn't going to be able to buy vast quantities of U.S. goods, but the impoverished residents will be happy to produce limitless cheap goods for export to the United States.
The narrow victory and the heavy-handed methods that were necessary to achieve it shows that on trade policy, as on many other issues, this administration does not have the mandate it claims.
Unfortunately, we suspect that President Bush will continue to govern as if the whole country is one bright shade of red, ignoring those communities that are blue or are various shades of purple. And he'll be just as wrong in doing that as he was in pushing through CAFTA.