August 30, 2010 3:24PM

Obama Team Sounding the Right Notes on Export Controls

Certain headlines seem to re-appear in one form or another on a regular basis, such as “North Korea Threatens Military Action” or “Myanmar Junta Tightens Grip.” A leading example from the world of trade is, “Congress Weighs Export Control Reform.”

For the past 20 years, variations of that headline have appeared regularly, yet Congress never gets around to actually reforming our Cold-War-era restrictions on what U.S. companies can sell abroad. This week, in a welcome move, the Obama administration plans to announce administrative changes that will help to bring our export control regime into the 21st century.

As part of their constitutional duty to provide for the national defense, Congress and the executive have the legitimate power to regulate the sale of sensitive military products and technology to foreign entities. The problem is in the implementation. Export controls today cover products that have no real connection to national security, but the controls do make it more difficult for U.S. companies to compete effectively in global export markets.

The Obama administration has an extra incentive to reform export controls. In his State of the Union speech in January, the president announced the National Export Initiative, with the ambitious goal of doubling U.S. exports during the next five years. But as I pointed out in an op-ed a few weeks ago, our current export-control regime is a significant impediment to that goal.

The administration has been sounding the right notes. In a speech in April by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and an op-ed today by National Security Adviser James L. Jones, the administration has signaled that it will allow a wider range of products to be sold abroad without special licenses while more effectively controlling the sale of technology that really would pose a danger in the wrong hands.

The next few days will tell us whether this administration is willing to take the steps necessary to make the long-promised reforms a reality.