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Look to Virginia, Not China

 
Published: July 25, 2005
This week, the House of Representatives is expected to take up free trade. As is always the case with trade votes, the debate promises to be bloody, as President Bush and Congressional Republican leaders beg and bribe antitrade members of their party to make up for the legions of Democrats who are lining up in opposition.

This time, the debate centers around the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or Cafta, a pact between the United States and six countries with the combined economy of Connecticut: Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The usual free-trade foes have been joined by many usually pro-trade Democrats who just want to stick it to President Bush and are doing so in this case under the guise of protecting workers. The opposition also includes the sugar lobby, which apparently believes the huge, trade-distorting protections it already gets are not enough and wants to block more imports.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Thomas, plans to woo more anti-trade Republicans to Cafta by expediting a bill that would make it easier to retaliate against subsidized imports from China. What that has to do with Central American trade is anybody's guess.

If Republicans and Democrats really want to help American workers compete in a global economy, they should be looking elsewhere, to retraining. The textile industry has long been one of the most protected in America. Tariffs on clothing bring in close to half of all tariff revenues per year, while those imports account for only about 6 percent of total imports. Despite all that protection, textile jobs have steadily disappeared.

Instead of trying to turn back time, politicians in Washington should be following the very good example being set by Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia. Seeking to stem the job hemorrhage in rural southern Virginia as the region's textile plants were shuttered, Mr. Warner started creating one-stop worker-assistance storefronts in depressed rural towns in 2002. Beyond helping laid-off workers navigate the maze of federal trade adjustment assistance and unemployment checks, Mr. Warner backed a program to help workers without a high school diploma get a G.E.D. in 90 days or less. He put up incentive money to attract Nascar engine builders to the region. Indeed, the area's love for Nascar has been harnessed: state-sponsored ads tout the G.E.D. program at Nascar races.

So far, about 20,000 workers have gone through some aspect of the program, at one of the 131 centers in the state, Mr. Warner's aides say. The unemployment rate in one of the hardest-hit towns, Martinsville, was still a whopping 10.4 percent in May, but it was 15.7 percent in January 2002, when the program started.

Thinking creatively about ways to help workers whose jobs migrate overseas should be a top priority from the White House to Capitol Hill to state capitols. That is a far more worthy expenditure of time than the politically expedient let's-blame-China farce now showing in Washington.