Despite opposition from his constituents, Democratic Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson said Tuesday that he supports the North American Free Trade Agreement--becoming one of the first California Democrats to take a definite stand on the controversial treaty.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), meanwhile, remains undecided on the proposal to remove all trade barriers between the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 10 years.
“He supports the concept of free trade but has some serious problems with this bill at this particular point,” said John Frith, Gallegly’s spokesman.
California--and its influential 54-member congressional delegation--is an important battleground for an issue that is expected to have a disproportionate impact on the state.
Ironically, it is Beilenson’s constituents who appear most up in arms over NAFTA. The lawmaker, whose 24th District includes most of Thousand Oaks, said that the proposed pact has become the hottest button among those he represents.
“NAFTA is the most discussed issue when I’m back home at town hall meetings, where you get a pretty good flavor of what’s on people’s minds,” said Beilenson, who acknowledged his support may cost him votes when he seeks reelection next year. “The people who are most concerned about it or most vocal about it are, almost without exception, opposed to it.”
He said fears that NAFTA would send jobs to low-wage Mexico has apparently been heightened by the outspoken opposition of Ross Perot and labor unions.
Verne Bauman, 24th District congressional coordinator for Perot’s United We Stand America, said that the organization’s 1,500 members in the Conejo Valley area are “97% against it.”
Bauman said illegal immigration is the only issue as hot as NAFTA among his members.
“What we see is that it’s very good for an upper third of the economic structure and the bottom two thirds are not going to fare very well under it,” Bauman said. “Your middle class will not fare well. Bankers and people who control markets and business owners will do quite well.”
Gallegly, whose 23rd District includes Carpinteria and all of Ventura County except most of Thousand Oaks, has received “a fair number of calls” on NAFTA, divided among opponents, proponents and those seeking information on the issue, Frith said. Agricultural interests appear particularly supportive, he added.
Beilenson joins three or four other California Democrats who have endorsed the pact following the adoption of side agreements to address labor and environmental concerns. President Clinton faces an uphill struggle in his push for congressional approval.
First and foremost, Beilenson said, he supports NAFTA because he believes that free and open trade benefits workers and consumers in the United States as well as other nations. In addition, he said exports have been the strongest part of the U. S. economy in recent years, particularly in California, and exports to Mexico have tripled in the past six years.
“What we’re talking about here is reducing trade barriers, almost all of which have been erected in Mexico,” said Beilenson, a Woodland Hills resident. “It’s clear that we’re going to be able to sell even more to them.”
He said that even if “the most dire predictions” prove correct, the United States would lose 150,000 relatively low-paying jobs over a 10-year period--far fewer than will have been eliminated by defense cuts. At the same time, he said, “We will, over the same amount of time, pick up that many or a few more better-paying jobs, so it will even out.”
In any case, he said companies will be able to move work to Mexico whether or not NAFTA passes.
Finally, Beilenson said that the agreement could help deter illegal immigration from Mexico because “it will help create additional jobs and wealth and provide some employment for people there who would otherwise be coming north looking for jobs.”