Thumbs Up for U.S. Trade Nominee

This article appeared in Canada's National Post on March 18, 2005

President Bush's nomination of Ohio Congressman Rob Portman asU.S. Trade Representative should, on balance, benefit the forces offree trade in North America and around the world. His record is notperfect, but judging by his 12 years in Congress it can be saidthat Mr. Portman generally supports free trade.

On the plus side of the ledger, Mr. Portman is one of 24 "freetraders" in the House of Representatives ranked in a study releasedthis week by the Cato Institute. In the 108th Congress, Mr. Portmanvoted consistently against both trade barriers and trade subsidies.During his career in the House, Congressman Portman voted 74% ofthe time in favour of lower trade barriers, according to ourstudy.

Probably the best description of Mr. Portman is a that he is aconventional, pro-trade Republican. He has voted in favour of freertrade on all the major bills that have come before Congress in hisyears there: the North American Free Trade Agreement; the UruguayRound Agreements Act (which created the WTO); trade promotionauthority; normal trade relations with China; and all the recentbilateral free-trade agreements.

But he has strayed from the free-trade path on some importantissues. The biggest lapse in his free-trade record was his supportfor a steel import ban in 1998. On Oct. 15, 1998, Mr. Portman alsovoted in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for a one-yearban on steel imports. The resolution failed, but if such a ban hadbecome law, it would have flouted international trade rules anddevastated U.S. domestic steel-using industries.

In another deviation from free trade principles, in November,2001 -- on the eve of the WTO meeting -- that launched the Doharound, Mr. Portman voted in favour of a resolution urging thePresident and then-U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick to "preserve theability of the U.S. to enforce its trade laws." The resolution senta disappointing message to the rest of the world that the UnitedStates will be reluctant to negotiate needed reforms of widelyabused anti-dumping laws.

And like most Republicans, Mr. Portman has voted time and againto maintain America's four-decade-old embargo against Cuba despiteits failure to change the Castro regime.

Despite all these lapses, Mr. Portman has much in his favour. Heis well-liked by both Republicans and Democrats and has close tiesto the White House. Those connections will be useful as the Bushadministration seeks passage this year of the Central American FreeTrade Agreement. Still to be tested is how effective he will be inworking with his counterparts in Canada, Europe and other WTOmember countries to bring the Doha Development Round to asuccessful conclusion, probably in 2006.

Also awaiting his attention are ongoing irritants in theotherwise huge and mutually beneficial trade relationship betweenCanada and the United States. His predecessor, Robert Zoellick, wasunable to resolve disputes over U.S. restrictions on importedCanadian softwood lumber and beef. Of course, Congress and otheradministration departments play a major role in those disputes, butthe efforts of the USTR can help resolve those and other disputes.Like President Bush himself, Mr. Portman believes in free trade andgenerally supports it with his deeds, even if he is not alwaysperfectly consistent.