News Column

Washington Insider: New Political Players on the Scene

January/February 2005, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Patricia Guadalupe

Henry Cuella
Henry Cuella

CONGRESSIONAL NEWCOMERS: The 109th Congress recently convened with the first Hispanic Senators in decades and the first-ever from opposite parties at the same time: Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar and Florida Republican Mel Martínez, a former Bush administration official. Mr. Martínez, who has said he wants the Senate to place greater emphasis on Latin American issues, joins the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Salazar's main legislative assignment is on the Agriculture Committee. Mr. Salazar, former state attorney general for Colorado, says he supports free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but wants more time to study whether agreements with other Latin American countries are feasible. One of the trade issues expected this year is the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) between the United States and several Latin American countries, including Honduras and Nicaragua. Mr. Martínez adds that not only would he support future trade agreements with Latin America, but that he would lobby to make Miami the headquarters of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

In the lower House, the freshman class includes three Hispanics: Democrat Henry Cuéllar of Texas, who defeated Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Ciro Rodríguez in a spring primary; Democrat John Salazar of Colorado, the older brother of newly elected Senator Ken Salazar; and Republican Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico's non-voting Resident Commissioner. Also in the House, Rep. Robert Menéndez of New Jersey returns as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-most powerful party leadership post in the House. "I am proud to continue my tenure as the only Hispanic ever elected to a congressional leadership position, in either chamber, by either party," Mr. Menéndez said.

Still, despite the status as the nation's fastest growing ethnic community and largest minority group, Hispanics represent just a fraction of the nation's legislative body: 2 percent in the Senate and 4.3 percent in the House.

TAX REPEAL: The Dominican Republic legislature recently voted to repeal a 25 percent tax that had been imposed on beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, opening the way for the Caribbean nation to be included in a combined Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)/U.S.-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement. Bush administration officials had considered the tax a violation of the pact and had withdrawn the later agreement from consideration after the Dominican legislature approved the tax. When President Bush was reelected, Dominican President Leonel Fernández – a native New Yorker – had pledged to repeal the tax.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: When President Bush nominated Kellogg CEO Carlos Gutierrez to the Cabinet Commerce Secretary post, Hispanic groups lauded the choice, saying that the former truck driver from Cuba who rose through the ranks of the cereal company not only is a good example for the community, but also someone they hope will help increase the ranks of Hispanics in the federal government, especially the Commerce Department's "dismal" record of Hispanic hiring. "The Department of Commerce has the worst track record of any federal agency when it comes to hiring Hispanics. It's a real serious problem over at Commerce," says Brent Wilkes, Washington director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Mr. Wilkes told Hispanic Business that LULAC and other groups are requesting a meeting with Mr. Gutierrez to discuss the issue. Slightly less than 3 percent of the Commerce Department's workforce is Hispanic, ranking near the bottom of federal agencies.

VISA CONCERNS: Already in the first week of the new year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency received enough applications for H-2B visas to reach the congressionally mandated cap of 66,000 new workers for fiscal year 2005. The so-called "professional worker" visas are largely used by the high-tech industry for temporary foreign employees. Legislation to increase the cap failed to gain momentum in Congress last year, and the general consensus among legislators is that a similar fate awaits any new proposal in the 109th Congress.


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