Americans want a CAFTA to benefit citizens north of the border, too by Sherrod Brown

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BENJAMIN Franklin's definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results - could refer to current U.S. trade policy.

A dozen years ago, our nation's trade deficit - the value of our imports minus exports - stood at $38 billion, a number that most economists thought too high. Today, after a series of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, it has jumped to $618 billion.

When Congress voted on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, our trade deficit with Canada and Mexico was $8 billion. Now, a dozen years later, our trade deficit with these two nations has rocketed to $115 billion.

Since the passage of President Bush's Trade Promotion Authority in early 2002, fully one-sixth of United States manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Yet the Bush Administration is asking Congress to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which the Senate narrowly agreed to do recently. Now it's in the House.

The administration and its allies in the business community, especially pharmaceutical and financial firms, tell Congress the same old story. They claim that this trade agreement is essential to ensuring economic viability for the U.S. and Central American economies.

They promise more jobs for Americans, more manufacturing done in the United States, and a higher standard of living for workers in developing countries.

Yet with every trade agreement, the predictions and the promises fall by the wayside. Instead we see more job loss here, rapid decline in U.S. manufacturing, and stagnant wages in the developing world.

While CAFTA supporters argue that U.S. farmers and ranchers and manufacturers will export large quantities of their goods to Central America, they rarely mention that the combined economic output of these countries is equivalent to that of Columbus, Ohio. And that the per capita income of a Nicaraguan worker is about $2,300 a year, less than one-sixteenth of an American's.

What CAFTA is not about is Central American workers being able to buy apparel from North Carolina, or cars manufactured in Detroit, or computers from Austin.

What CAFTA is about is U.S. companies moving plants to Honduras, outsourcing jobs to El Salvador, and exploiting cheap labor in Guatemala.

Each of the other four Bush trade agreements - with Chile, Australia, Singapore, and Morocco - was passed by Congress fewer than 60 days after the President signed them. CAFTA has languished for almost 13 months.

Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in the House, said that there would be a vote in the House in 2004. Then he promised House action by Memorial Day and, failing that, before July 4. It didn't happen.

But the American people, and the representatives who work for them, continue to resist. The American people want a different CAFTA, one that will raise living standards north and south of the border.

The United States, with its unrivaled purchasing power and its enormous economic clout, is in a unique position to help empower poor workers in developing countries while promoting prosperity at home.

When the world's poorest people can buy American products rather than just make them, then we will know that our trade policies are finally working.