President Bush’s nomination of Ohio Congressman Rob Portman as U.S. Trade Representative should, on balance, benefit the forces of free trade in North America and around the world. His record is not perfect, but judging by his 12 years in Congress it can be said that Mr. Portman generally supports free trade.
On the plus side of the ledger, Mr. Portman is one of 24 “free traders” in the House of Representatives ranked in a study released this week by the Cato Institute. In the 108th Congress, Mr. Portman voted consistently against both trade barriers and trade subsidies. During his career in the House, Congressman Portman voted 74% of the time in favour of lower trade barriers, according to our study.
Probably the best description of Mr. Portman is a that he is a conventional, pro-trade Republican. He has voted in favour of freer trade on all the major bills that have come before Congress in his years there: the North American Free Trade Agreement; the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (which created the WTO); trade promotion authority; normal trade relations with China; and all the recent bilateral free-trade agreements.
But he has strayed from the free-trade path on some important issues. The biggest lapse in his free-trade record was his support for a steel import ban in 1998. On Oct. 15, 1998, Mr. Portman also voted in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for a one-year ban on steel imports. The resolution failed, but if such a ban had become law, it would have flouted international trade rules and devastated 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 Doha round, Mr. Portman voted in favour of a resolution urging the President and then-U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick to “preserve the ability of the U.S. to enforce its trade laws.” The resolution sent a disappointing message to the rest of the world that the United States will be reluctant to negotiate needed reforms of widely abused anti-dumping laws.
And like most Republicans, Mr. Portman has voted time and again to maintain America’s four-decade-old embargo against Cuba despite its failure to change the Castro regime.
Despite all these lapses, Mr. Portman has much in his favour. He is well-liked by both Republicans and Democrats and has close ties to the White House. Those connections will be useful as the Bush administration seeks passage this year of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Still to be tested is how effective he will be in working with his counterparts in Canada, Europe and other WTO member countries to bring the Doha Development Round to a successful conclusion, probably in 2006.
Also awaiting his attention are ongoing irritants in the otherwise huge and mutually beneficial trade relationship between Canada and the United States. His predecessor, Robert Zoellick, was unable to resolve disputes over U.S. restrictions on imported Canadian softwood lumber and beef. Of course, Congress and other administration departments play a major role in those disputes, but the efforts of the USTR can help resolve those and other disputes. Like President Bush himself, Mr. Portman believes in free trade and generally supports it with his deeds, even if he is not always perfectly consistent.