The House of Representatives passed a bill today authorizing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status with Russia, by a vote of 365-43. The bill repeals a cold war–era trade restriction that has prevented the United States from benefiting directly from Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization last August (and Moldova’s entry in 2001). It also adds a travel restriction on certain Russian officials involved in a particular incident a few years ago in which an anti-corruption activist died in a Russian jail. There is no doubt the bill will pass the Senate in its current form.
It has been almost a year since Russia completed the negotiations necessary to be accepted into the WTO, after almost two decades of on-and-off diplomatic effort. If PNTR with Russia could pass by a margin of 8-1, why did it take so long to get it through Congress?
The only answer I can offer is dishearteningly cynical. The consensus among close observers is that the Republican House leadership delayed taking up the matter in a bid to pressure President Obama into more vocally supporting the bill, thereby alienating his Big Labor campaign allies—the only constituency that offered any opposition—and so they could look tougher than the president on foreign policy. The president chose not to play that game and deflected the resulting scorn from a not-insignificant portion of the business community toward Congress. Is it naïve of me to wish that elected officials would just vote for what they think is right instead of playing partisan games with our fortunes and freedoms? Probably.
When Russia joined the WTO last August, I wrote that it was a good day for liberty everywhere but in the United States. After some frustrating and needless delay, the American people are getting to join the party.