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Helms Plays Hardball
July 23, 2001

Had Mr. Blackwell attended the April 30, 1789 inauguration of George Washington, he would have deemed the first president a fashion plate for the ages. According to the New York Journal, Washington "appeared dressed in a complete suit of homespun clothes, but the cloth was of so fine a fabric and so handsomely finished that it was universally mistaken for a foreign manufactured cloth." Not so. Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth of the Continental army wrote of the fabric, ordered from a Hartford, Connecticut mill, that it had been conspicuously chosen in the "hope it will be worn by one whose example will be worth more than any other encouragement that can be given our infant manufactures."

Unfortunately, President Washington's current heir is not cut of the same cloth. When Mr. Bush ventured four Treasury Department nominees, he found an unlikely obstacle in the path to swift approval - the venerable Jesse Helms, willing to ransom the nominees for fair textile trade. Loath to vary the free trade dictum or expend political capitol on a fight over fabric, Team Bush tried back-channel negotiations. But they underestimated the resolve of a senator accustomed to manning lonely ramparts. Helms dug in his heels, and the four hostage nominees continue to play the waiting game.

By the Washington Post's account, the conflict is simple: "Sen. Jesse Helms, who opposes textile trade" versus "The Bush Administration, which favors trade." For a fuller telling, ask the 541,000 American textile workers whose industry stands at the edge of extinction. Last year, U.S. textile manufacturing logged its first loss since data has been collected -- $369 million dollars. Over 100 mills have closed, and dozens more teeter on the brink. For the workers collecting pink slips, "opposing" trade is not the issue; they're looking for a leader who "favors" the continuance of American industry.

At issue, the Customs Department's current interpretation of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) -- a 24-country NAFTA-style trade pact passed in 1999. By the department's read, foreign competitors are permitted to dye, print, and sew American-crafted cloth then ship it back duty-free. But the deal only extends the tax-free privilege to textiles "wholly formed in the U.S.," and Sen. Helms stands ready to enforce the letter of that law. The Customs Department retorts that weaving alone satisfies the "wholly formed" requirement, and dyeing and finishing can legally be done overseas. On behalf of the 70 fabric finishing plants facing bankruptcy in his home state of North Carolina, Sen. Helms rejects their verdict and refuses to budge.

Between breathless allegations of senatorial "blackmail," the Post moans, "A rich country such as the United States should be ashamed of maintaining protectionist barriers against imports from countries where people are desperate for jobs and an escape from poverty." Permit a correction: "An independent country such as the United States should be ashamed of maintaining globalist policies that leave our own citizens desperate for jobs and doomed to dependence." The founder who chose homespun from the homefront would no doubt agree -- and urge the good senator to hold on to his hold.

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