What’s Charlie Rangel Hiding?

A man who is willing to show how clean he is by initiating an ethics probe into his own fundraising activities surely wouldn’t mind explaining his motivation for terminating a study on Chinese trade practices that he himself commissioned to great fanfare. Until he does give this explanation, we can only speculate.

On May 23, 2007, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to undertake a comprehensive study of interventionist Chinese government policies and the role those policies play in exacerbating the U.S.-China trade imbalance. A three-part study was requested, whereby the first part would describe the role and policies of the Chinese government concerning all aspect of the economy. Seven months were afforded to the ITC to complete the first phase, and a 272-page study was published in December 2007.

The second phase was to focus on sectors and policies “which are the primary drivers of the U.S.-China trade deficit” to determine how much of that deficit can be attributed to interventionist Chinese policies like subsidization, currency manipulation, and export promotion. Phase two was to be published by today (no later than 14 months after the May 23, 2007 letter). But it wasn’t.

In a letter to then-ITC chairman Dan Pearson dated April 1, 2008, Rangel expressed his disappointment with the ITC’s report so far, but took care to place the blame for the report’s faulty conclusions on the absence of transparency on the part of the Chinese government:

The inability to access within the time agreed upon key information, and to analyze this information thoroughly and rigorously, has led to numerous inadvertent mischaracterization in the draft. These mischaracterizations are understandable given several characteristics of the Chinese economy and Chinese society, including the lack of transparency in Chinese policymaking, the absence of a clear demarcation between central and provincial government responsibilities, the pace at which laws and regulations are being written and re-written, and the incomplete development of the rule of law in China. Similarly, the breadth of the Committee’s request may have been too great, given the limitations on the Commission’s time, resources and lack of experience to date in investigating, identifying, obtaining and analyzing the kinds of information critical to the analysis sought in the Committee’s request.

Rangel went on to express confidence that the ITC would “develop the capacity to address the central and critical issues identified in the study,” but that he was suspending the work of the ITC on this matter, while his staff “work[ed] with the Commission staff to ensure that the Commission has the resources, time, and guidance it needs.”

I guess the ITC didn’t take the hint, so on June 25, 2008, Rangel terminated the study altogether. 

Why did Rangel pull the plug? At a minimum, the move to terminate the study raises suspicions that the ITC’s conclusions were not in line with the hopes or expectations of Rangel, the Committee, or the Democratic majority in Congress. The Dems have been hard-peddling the line that unfair trade explains the trade deficit, the “decline” in U.S. manufacturing, and the growing aversion of Americans to trade and globalization. 

The ITC’s conclusions were probably more in line with the views of those of us who acknowledge that the Chinese government continues to play an oversized role in the Chinese economy, but who also believe those interventions have only a marginal impact on the trade balance. 

Allowing those conclusions to come out in the midst of an election campaign that features clear distinctions on trade policy between the political parties, and which would clearly undermine the Democratic Party line, could be uncomfortable for Chairman Rangel and his fellow Democrats. 

At this point, the ITC economists and researchers who spent a minimum of six months on this study are probably more than a bit frustrated. And taxpayers have been forced to subsidize yet another wasteful government effort. 

At the very least, then, the ITC should publish its results, since it has already come this far. It would be interesting to see exactly what scared Chairman Rangel. And I suspect the results would be vindicating for those of us who know that the trade deficit has nothing to do with trade policy and everything to do with providing a fig leaf for the protectionist agenda of some of Chairman Rangel’s party’s biggest benefactors.