Joe Bennett, president of injection molder United Southern Industries Inc. in Forest City, N.C., wanted to make sure his congressman, Republican Charles Taylor, got the point - that the manufacturing industry needs political support, and that China is a big part of the problem.
Bennett was sitting in a cluttered conference in Taylor's Capitol Hill office May 14 with three other plastics industry representatives and a reporter allowed into the meeting. Bennett was making his case to Taylor aide R. Adam Shepherd. Bennett urged the congressman to consider some radical steps - pulling the United States out of the World Trade Organization and suspending any new trade agreements until the economy improves.
``Not one of us has escaped massive downturns in business since China reared its head,'' Bennett said. But he acknowledged to the aide, who asked what suggestions the group had, ``We don't have the answers. We're just letting you know to keep flying the flag.''
Bennett was in Washington among about 50 executives participating in the ``China Fly-In,'' a half-day conference organized by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington.
But SPI isn't advocating pulling out of the WTO or suspending trade deals.
SPI instead is pushing a three-point plan: using WTO and the International Monetary Fund to correct China's ``manipulation'' of its currency; enforcing China's WTO commitments; and pushing legislation to help U.S. manufacturing industry in areas like health care, energy and taxes.
The lobbying day began with an open-ended discussion of what to do about U.S. trade problems. Participating were speakers with very different solutions.
Some, such as author Alan Tonelson and Heritage Foundation researcher John Tkacik, advocated leaving WTO.
Others, like National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Frank Vargo, said that open trade has benefited the United States and that only by entering into trade deals can the United States make other markets as open as its own.
But some audience members openly questioned Vargo about whether NAM tracks how many of its members have moved manufacturing to China, a sore spot with some attendees at the Arlington, Va., event.
NAM has argued that lowering the value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies will help the U.S. trade deficit. Both NAM and SPI have argued that China must stop manipulating its currency, which SPI estimates is 40 percent undervalued and makes Chinese imports artificially cheap.
Vargo said he was not sure if a country ever has brought a case against another government for manipulating its currency: ``It certainly wouldn't be easy.''
A speaker from the U.S. Trade Representative's office said that while the U.S. government is concerned about the value of China's currency, there are no trade agreements that discuss the issue.
China feels its currency policy - which pegs its currency to the dollar rather than letting it float freely - is a key reason it survived the Asian financial crisis in the mid-late 1990s, said Paul Neureiter, China director for the USTR's Office of North Asian Affairs.
While U.S. industry may look at China as an economic tiger, Neureiter said the country is ``economically unsound''; it needs to grow at least 7 percent a year to lift enough of its population out of poverty and maintain stability.
That issue seemed far from the minds of most in attendance, however.
They described seeing profit margins tighten as the economy has turned down and imports have risen. SPI said the plastics processing industry had a $1.4 billion trade deficit last year, a dramatic switch from a surplus of $894 million in 2000. Tonelson said government industrial production figures for the plastics and resin industries are at July 1998 levels.
``Jobs are being lost and companies are shutting down,'' said Hoop Roche, chairman and chief executive officer of injection molder Erie Plastics Corp. in Corry, Pa.
``The prevailing opinion in Washington seems to be that that's not that big of a problem.'' Roche said he is particularly concerned about the lack of any sense of urgency among government officials.
Some of the attendees, including executives at polystyrene cutlery molder Maryland Plastics Inc., raised China-specific issues. They said Chinese companies are willing to ship finished cutlery to the port of Baltimore, 90 miles from its Federalsburg, Md., factory, for what Maryland Plastics would pay for its resin alone. President Allen Penrod said the company is losing millions of dollars in sales because it can't compete with those prices.
Others raised more general manufacturing issues, urging Congress to let trade associations buy health care for its members across state lines, or telling legislators to allow for more drilling of natural gas to lower raw material prices for manufacturing plastics.
SPI officials asked the group for specific stories, and Roche acknowledged in an interview that there are serious problems with overcapacity in manufacturing: ``If China went away, we would still have a problem. They are so big they make the most obvious target.''
One member of Congress who addressed the group, Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., said Washington does not understand the manufacturing industry. Manzullo, chairman of the House Small Business Committee, told the group not to focus on China, but on changing government policies to help save domestic manufacturing. He suggested China simply has its ``order pad'' out, taking business that is leaving the United States.
Echoing that, officials from some of the attending companies said it is important to raise broad issues about manufacturing problems.
``You have a de-industrialization of the United States under way and we're not talking about it,'' said Jay Cude, president of medical molder Coeur Inc. in Washington, N.C.