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DeFazio's Fight Against CAFTA

Representative Peter DeFazio is fighting a lonely battle.
Oregon's 4th District Congressman is opposing CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement. DeFazio's opposition is viewed as quixotic, even obsolete, by the free trade cognoscenti.

DeFazio is a rare congressman. He actually believes in representing his constituents at a time when most congressmen slavishly dance to the tune of the interest group lobbyists who finance their perpetual campaigns. Most incumbents fear lobbyists will finance primary opponents against them if they don't toe the line.

The "best minds" now believe "globalization" is an accomplished fact and any further resistance is futile or even counterproductive. DeFazio is unfazed. In his view, NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been a disaster for his constituents and for his country.

NAFTA is responsible for the export of American manufacturing jobs and any benefits for American workers are far outweighed by the losses so far, DeFazio argues.

Supporters of NAFTA predicted the treaty would create 170,000 new U.S. jobs. It turns out that NAFTA has led to a net loss of 880,000 jobs in the U.S. as multinational businesses abandon U.S. manufacturing plants for cheaper labor elsewhere. DeFazio argues that CAFTA will lead to more of the same.

The job losses DeFazio worries about are not abstractions. Many of your Oregon neighbors have lost jobs to what is euphemistically called outsourcing and off-shoring. Some 290 jobs were lost in West Linn when a paper company moved its operations offshore. About 70 jobs were lost when Oremet, the Albany metals company, sent work offshore. PSC Inc., the Eugene pioneer of scanning technology, sent 22 jobs to Asia because their competitors were doing it and the company had to stay competitive.

The number of jobs lost is not as significant as the type of jobs being lost -- family wage jobs with benefits. To the extent they have been replaced, these jobs are replaced by retail and service industry jobs with lower wages and few benefits. Not surprisingly, the substitution of low-wage jobs for higher-wage jobs is precipitating a decline in the American middle class standard of living even as it raises living standards the counties that receive the work. Defazio says his job is protecting his constituents' standard of living first.

DeFazio, a Democrat, is also acutely aware of the price his party has paid for its support of free trade ideology. Free trade simply eliminated a major portion of the Democrats' political base as their jobs got shipped overseas. The Democrats are a moribund political party not because they were too liberal, embraced abortion or civil rights, got out of touch with voters, don't pray in public often enough or any of the other rants of the Republican propaganda machine. The Democrats simply betrayed their traditional constituency of manufacturing workers to embrace free trade. Democrats have found no replacement for them.

Democrats like Peter DeFazio must wonder if CAFTA will have a similar effect on Republican fortunes. CAFTA is more about agriculture than manufacturing. Agriculture is a keystone Republican constituency. The Republicans are about to betray American agriculture like the Democrats betrayed American manufacturing workers.

It has already begun. All the privately-owned food processing plants in Western Oregon are closed or closing. The number of cannery contracts given to Western Oregon farmers is near zero. The major exception is a cooperative freezing plant at Brooks, north of Salem. Virtually all the food processors who operated in Oregon have relocated to Central and South America where they offer cannery contracts to local and corporate farms that have the capital to engage in industrial agriculture. They can and freeze food and import it into the United States. CAFTA will eliminate tariffs and lower the cost of importing the food that competes with what remains of American agriculture.

Under NAFTA, unrestrained fruit imports from Asia and South American began devastating the Northwest apple and pear business. Following the enactment of NAFTA, America's agricultural trade deficit with Canada and Mexico tripled -- from $5.2 billion to $14.6 billion. DeFazio believes that deficit will rise even more rapidly if CAFTA is enacted.

The more interesting question is whether the Republicans will suffer a similar fate for betraying their agricultural constituency as the Democrats suffered for betraying their manufacturing constituency.

Republicans in Congress are assured by interest group lobbyists that the increasingly sophisticated campaign techniques they finance will render opponents impotent at election time. The success of Republican campaigns over the last decade give credence to these arrogant assurances.

The ultimate question is now long voters will remain gullible and distracted by content-free "cultural" hot button issues that have no real relevance to their economic standard of living. In the meantime, Peter DeFazio continues his lonely vigil on the ramparts of American manufacturing and agriculture.

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