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Special briefing on Underwear War

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Just when you think it can't get any weirder in Washington, here comes "The Underwear War." In the recent budget-and-tax deal cut by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, there was an underhanded attempt to pull-off another NAFTA trade scam on behalf of some major makers of ... undies! The charge was led by Sara Lee, which owns both Hanes and Wonderbra, and has moved much of its skivvy-making operations to the Caribbean, where it gets labor dirt cheap. Now, though, these Caribbean-based companies also want to ship their cheaply made knickers back to the U.S. without paying a dime in tariffs, just as Mexican-based manufacturers can do under NAFTA. So their lobbyists attempted to slip their "Caribbean NAFTA" into the recent budget-and-tax bill. They undercut the usual legislative process -- no hearings, no public debate, not even a floor vote. This undercover ploy, supported by some powerful Republican lawmakers and by the White House, was headed to passage ... until there was a rip in the solidarity of the underwear industry. Suddenly, Fruit of the Loom loomed in opposition to this sneaky deal. This giant in the undergarment biz has extensive operations in Mexico, and it didn't want its competitors to have both NAFTA benefits and Caribbean labor, which is even cheaper than Mexican labor. So, it hired a top-drawer lobbying firm that includes former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole and George Mitchell to undermine the Caribbean underwear amendment. In the end, the lobbying clout of these heavyhitters prevailed, and the amendment was snipped from the budget deal. But don't underestimate the Caribbean underwear makers -- they'll be back this fall, trying to pull off this new NAFTA and further undercut Made-in-the-USA products. The Underwear War has only begun -- you can bet your shorts on it.

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