The “Do Nothing” Congress Can, and Should, Do Something Good on Trade

Make no mistake, the incoming Congress looks like it will be less amenable to trade liberalization than the last. Many friends (or, at least, non-enemies) of free trade in the last Congress have been replaced by “fair-trade” Democrats who have lamented the trade policies of the Bush Administration and seem keen to provide more “oversight” (read: populist obstructionism) on trade issues in the future.

However, rather than pass laws on warrantless wire-tapping and the like, the 109th Congress can make a positive contribution to U.S. policy in its last, dying weeks and vote in favor of granting “permanent normal trade relations” status to Vietnam. That would strengthen the bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam, and bring economic benefits to both nations.

Holding up the passage of that bill before the elections was Sen. Mel Martinez (R- Fla.), concerned about the treatment of Thuong Nguyen “Cuc” Foshee, a Florida woman detained in Vietnam on suspicion of terrorism. Mrs Foshee was, however, released for health reasons and is due to return to the United States today. That paves the way for a House vote on the issue this week and, hopefully, a Senate vote soon after.

Vietnam’s accession to the WTO has already been approved by the WTO membership, and a bilateral market access deal between the United States and Vietnam was sealed in May 2006. Vietnam would not, however, need to extend most-favoured-nation tariffs to the United States until Congress granted PNTR. Unless and until then, U.S. consumers and companies would not be able to take full advantage of Vietnam’s accession to the WTO. A market of more than 82 million people, growing at an average rate of 7.5 percent over the last decade, seems too good an opportunity to risk on a year-to-year basis (the current schedule for granting most-favored-nation status to Vietnam).

Apart from securing those economic benefits as soon as possible, however, a diplomatic embarrassment is ripe for the avoiding. President Bush is due to visit Hanoi from November 18-19 for the annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders meeting, at which the Doha round is due to be discussed.

My colleague Dan Ikenson has some concerns about the concessions made by the administration in order to secure the PNTR passage (see here), but this bill is one that the lame-duck Congress can, and should, pass quickly. Apart from the tangible economic benefits it will bring, it will have powerful “signal value” that the United States is still engaged on trade.