Chambers of Commerce split on deal

Several state and local Chambers of Commerce have decided to oppose or take no position on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is vigorously pressuring House lawmakers to vote for the agreement.

The Senate on June 30 approved CAFTA, but it faces significant opposition in the House. A cadre of Republicans representing manufacturers or sugar farmers, who have emerged as the trade pact’s most visible and vocal industry opponent, have pledged to defy House leaders working to pass the pact, which would lower trade barriers with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.

Many Democrats — even those who have supported previous trade pacts — have vowed to vote against CAFTA.

There is no formal whip count of lawmakers who support and oppose the deal, but senior House GOP aides have acknowledged it will be tough to pass. The quiet opposition from local Chambers of Commerce could explain why some Republican lawmakers feel comfortable breaking ranks with House GOP leaders.

Local Chambers of Commerce in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, Louisiana and Idaho have chosen to oppose or not to press for CAFTA’s passage.

“I run into a variety of positions on CAFTA in the local business community,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who represents Erie, Pa., where the local Chamber of Commerce has chosen to remain silent on CAFTA. “They’d rather be tackling fair-trade issues like China currency.”

Bob Spaulding, the chief operating officer of the Erie’s Chamber of Commerce, said, “We’ve not taken a position, and we don’t always do what national asks us to do. … There’s no market there for us to get all juicy about.”

In North Dakota, where the American Crystal Sugar Co. is headquartered, the state Chamber of Commerce had a policy for two years opposing CAFTA. Chamber headquarters in Washington asked North Dakota to reconsider its opposition and the state board decided not to change its position, according to John Murphy, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

The Fargo, N.D., Chamber of Commerce deferred a decision for several months before making a “deliberate decision not to take a position,” said Kelli Poehls, the Chamber’s spokeswoman. The state’s only congressman, Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), has said he will oppose CAFTA.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the statewide Chamber of Commerce, has remained neutral because its membership is split, said Bruce Bradley, a LABI official.

At least two new lawmakers in Louisiana will reject CAFTA. Newly elected Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who won the seat held by former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), is the former president of the state’s sugar lobby and will vote no. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), who replaced Democrat Chris John, will vote no, said his spokesman. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who represents New Orleans, did not immediately respond to comment.

Free-trade agreements have vexed presidents and House leaders ever since Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Legislation giving President Bush the authority to negotiate trade measures without congressional amendment cleared the House in the middle of the night by three votes in 2002. Annual bills to take away normal trade relations with China ended in 2001 when Congress permanently normalized trade. And G-8 and World Trade Organization meetings have been marked by some violent protests in recent years.

Nevertheless, trade agreements with Chile, Vietnam, Morocco, Jordan and Australia have passed easily.

CAFTA, however, has proved to be a hard political sell in an economic environment dominated by large budget and trade deficits, worry about the strength of China’s currency and ever-climbing oil prices.

Despite pockets of local opposition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent lawmakers a list of 250 local Chambers that are supporting the trade pact, Murphy said. The letter listed several reasons why CAFTA would benefit American employers and employees, and farmers in particular.

Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock’s Kirsten Chadwick, a former aide in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, is leading vote-counting efforts among Republicans. The Duberstein Group’s Steve Champlin is working the Democratic side of the aisle.