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For nearly a decade, domestic makers of men’s suits have been unhappy with the government. The clothiers have been complaining about the stiff tariffs that make importing high-grade wool from Italy expensive. Canadian manufacturers can import the material at a much lower tax rate, allowing them to turn around and sell their suits in this country for less money than American manufacturers can sell theirs. Last week, U.S. suit-makers got a little help in a last-minute add-on to the bill passed by Congress that opens up trade with the Caribbean and Africa. The bill, signed by President Bill Clinton on May 18, cuts the tariff by about 80 percent. That translates into a savings of about $30 million for suit-makers. In addition, the industry is getting another $30 million “rebate” for tariffs it paid last year. And suit-makers weren’t the only ones to come out ahead in the trade bill. Chiquita Brands International Inc. persuaded lawmakers to insert a provision that calls for tough trade sanctions against the Europeans if they continue to favor Caribbean bananas over those produced by the U.S. company, run by big political donor Carl Lindner. Another winner was Fruit of the Loom Inc., represented by former George Bush administration trade negotiator Ron Serini, now a lobbyist with Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg. The company scored an important victory, estimated to be worth from $30 million to $50 million, allowing it to import duty-free clothing manufactured in its Caribbean factories. Many of the provisions were put in without hearings, markups, or floor debate. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will cost the U.S. Treasury $400 million in lost tax revenue, but many advocates say the real number is higher. “This was a helter-skelter atmosphere, where individual companies were rushing in and making outlandish statements and proposals,” says one veteran trade lobbyist who worked extensively on the bill. Some criticized the add-ons because they were included in a bill touted by the Clinton administration as aiding poor Caribbean and African nations. “There’s a sad irony in it, in that a bill that has been [hailed as helpful to developing countries] now contains a provision to help Carl Lindner [CEO of Chiquita] undermine the livelihood of Afro-Caribbeans throughout the region,” says Scott Nova, head of the Citizen’s Trade Campaign, a coalition of labor and environmental groups. The suit-makers’ win is illustrative of the nuances of strategy and odd alliances that go into lobbying a trade bill. The origins of the dispute arose a decade ago, when U.S. negotiators agreed to allow Canada to import men’s suits into the United States duty-free. At the time, Canada had a very small men’s suit industry. That soon changed. Today, Canada has taken over about 22 percent of the U.S. market for men’s suits, selling about 1.3 million annually. U.S. suit-makers account for about 53 percent of the market, or roughly 3.2 million suits annually. U.S. suit-makers importing high-quality wool from Italy had to pay tariffs close to 30 percent. Canada had only a 6 percent tariff. Thus, Canadians could make suits and import them to the United States at prices lower than those of U.S. manufacturers. For years following, the U.S. suit-makers were stymied in their efforts to lower the tariff on imported high-grade wool. The opposition: the domestic textile industry, which has donated $524,000 to Republicans and $291,000 to Democrats since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Two years ago, the suit-makers banded together, formed the Tailored Clothing Association, and hired Williams & Jensen’s Steve Hart, a well-connected Republican lobbyist. They also brought on board David Starr, who served as an aide to former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. The suit-makers’ lobbyists coordinated closely with a group they are normally at odds with — the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees. The union joined the fight to preserve jobs in the suit-manufacturing industry, which have fallen by 50 percent in recent years. “I think this is an example of an industry that really had its back against the wall financially, and it was a case where both the unions and the companies had a common interest in trying to find a way to maintain their production in the United States,” says Starr, who says production in the domestic suit industry is down 40 percent since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Key support for the suit-makers came from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Finance Committee, which regulates tariffs. Many of the suit companies, including the coalition’s biggest members, Hart Schaffner & Marx and Hickey-Freeman, have facilities in Moynihan’s home state. The major opposition came from one of the country’s largest textile manufacturers, Burlington Industries Inc., which was represented by in-house lobbyists Donna Lee McGee and James Leonard. Also representing Burlington, as well as the Northern Textile Association, was Augustine Tantillo, the former head of the textile trade office in the Bush administration. FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES A key advocate for Burlington was Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, where Burlington has long had factories. Burlington was also able to gain the support of Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, by mobilizing the sheep ranchers, who feared that they would lose business to wool imports. The fight itself was an uncomfortable one because members of the same sector were fighting among themselves, says Leonard. “This was an issue between suppliers and customers, which isn’t the kind of argument you want to be having every day,” he says. Furthermore, says Leonard, waging a lobbying campaign is an expensive proposition for an industry that operates on tight margins. “Neither one of us needed to be spending the money on this fight,” he says. A final compromise was hammered out at 5 a.m., the morning before the bill hit the floor. It allowed suit manufacturers to import 1.5 million square meters of high-grade wool — less fabric than they had been seeking — to be taxed at close to Canadian levels. But the amount of imported fabric can rise by as much as 1 million square meters a year until 2003, when the bill expires. A key deal-sweetener for the longtime antagonists was a highly unusual rebate on their 1999 tariffs. The suit-makers may get returned as much as $30 million, the textile industry between $2 million and $3 million, and the sheep ranchers about $8 million. The rebates are expected to be paid out over three years. “It’s a cobbled-together fix,” says a Senate staffer who helped put the agreement together. “It isn’t ideal from anybody’s perspective, but it’s better than the status quo.”

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