Be(trade)

As we enter the last quarter of what feels like the tenth year of a two-term presidency, the Bush administration’s trade apologists have yet another setback to rationalize. Last week, in an effort to overcome limited opposition to a bill that would grant Vietnam “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR) status ahead of that country’s accession into the World Trade Organization, the administration announced it would “self-initiate” antidumping cases against Vietnamese exporters of clothing should conditions warrant.

Under the law, only domestic industries producing the product in question, unions representing workers producing the product in question, or the Commerce Department itself can initiate antidumping investigations. Rarely has the executive branch—and never has this administration—initiated an antidumping case on behalf of an industry or its workers. Almost every one of the thousands of U.S. antidumping cases over the years was initiated by industry, and that is why last week’s concession is significant.

Opposition to the bill was mostly confined to the textile industry, which is always opposed to measures that would expand the freedom of Americans to engage in commerce with the world at large. That opposition was expressed as a hold over a vote on the PNTR bill by two Republican senators from textile states, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Their opposition could have been overcome with a far less intrusive concession, if the administration was unwilling to stand on principle. After all, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) won his seat by a vast margin in 2004, running unapologetically on a free trade ticket against a candidate hand-picked and financed by South Carolina’s textile magnates.

Instead, the administration delivered to the textile industry it’s most coveted prize. You see, the U.S. textile industry does not have standing in antidumping cases involving imported clothing. Textile producers make the threads, yarns, and fabrics that are used in the manufacture of clothing, but they don’t make clothing. In fact, other than high-end fashion and uniforms made for the military, there isn’t much of a domestic clothing industry to speak of. Apparel producers left long ago, setting up shop in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Producers remaining in the United States generally don’t compete with imports, and most of those that do are also importers of clothing, and have no interest in impeding access of foreign producers to the U.S. market. In other words, there is no industry in the United States that could actually bring a consequential antidumping case against foreign producers.

The administration’s concession changes all that. If the administration is willing to initiate such cases, U.S. textile producers are that much closer to cordoning off the U.S. market for their own customers and keeping the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and other Asian suppliers at bay, while Americans pay more than they should have to for clothing.

Tongue in cheek, Bush apologists will argue that the administration outsmarted the opposition by agreeing only to take antidumping actions without specifying the conditions that would trigger such actions. But by even indulging in talk of self-initiating antidumping actions, the Bush administration makes crystal clear the insincerity of its own rhetoric about the virtues of free trade. And, it has set a terrible precedent that future administrations and policymakers will have a tougher time disavowing. You can bet your last dollar that presidential candidates stumping through textile country over the next two years will be pressed to honor this unforgivable commitment made by the Bush administration. And as the textile industry’s recourse to special safeguard measures against Chinese clothing imports expires at the end of 2008, it’s a virtual guarantee that its lobby will push for a similar antidumping commitment with respect to Chinese imports. And who knows, other industries might also line up for such treatment.

Prospects for significant trade liberalization were already hanging on by a thread, and the best we could hope for was for the administration holding the line. Last week’s “compromise” constitutes a colossal breach in that line. And none of it makes any sense from a political or diplomatic perspective anyway. The concession was made to improve prospects that the Vietnam PNTR bill would pass in a lame duck session ahead of the president’s visit to Hanoi next month. But does anyone in the White House think the Vietnamese are going to roll out the red carpet for a president bearing such a tainted gift: unfettered access to the U.S. market for all but their most important exports?