Under Dems, more panels scrutinizing trade policy

Congressional oversight of U.S. trade policy is expanding with Democrats in charge of Congress, with at least seven committees expected to hold hearings in the coming months.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leading congressional skeptic of trade who authored a book about how trade deals have shipped U.S. jobs overseas, announced last week that he will hold trade oversight hearings on fast track at his Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee. Only two hearings related to trade were held in that committee in the last Congress, according to Dorgan’s office.

Separately, Democrats in the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January changed the name of one subcommittee to the International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade subcommittee, largely because of the increasing importance of trade as a foreign-policy issue, according to a committee spokeswoman.

This is the first time that panel has had a subcommittee charged with overseeing trade policy since 1995, when Republicans eliminated the trade subcommittee upon taking over Congress.

Business sources said they also expected the House Education and the Workforce Committee, under Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), to hold oversight hearings on trade. These hearings would be in addition to the traditional hearings on farm trade held by Senate and House agriculture committees; the banking and financial services committees in both chambers may also consider trade issues.

The increased activity could increase pressure on Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose committees hold primary jurisdiction on trade. Both Rangel and Baucus have signaled a willingness to try to find compromises with the Bush administration that would allow its trade agenda to move forward. But they are also under pressure from fellow Democrats, organized labor and other groups to win significant concessions from the administration on labor and other issues.

But Baucus said he welcomed the additional voices on trade and does not perceive Dorgan’s actions as a threat.
“The more the merrier,” Baucus told The Hill last week. “I’m a firm believer in the more information we’ve got on the general subject, the more people ask questions, the more we’re going to get to the truth and find out what makes most sense.”

 Business lobbyists aren’t so sure. “It’s overreach,” one lobbyist said. “Are we going to have oversight at the Armed Services Committee next?”

While the new hearings could be helpful in letting members blow off steam, supporters of the administration’s trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama are expressing wariness that the hearings are intended to make it more difficult to move those deals.

“This is a running-out-the-clock strategy by opponents of trade,” said Christopher Wenk of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Frank Vargo, vice president of international economic affairs for the National Association of Manufacturers, called for balance in the hearings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on Finance, also said Dorgan’s hearings should tell both sides of the trade story. He said he hoped the hearings “won’t try to portray trade as the enemy of America’s economic interests.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Congress used to pass trade deals with little public input because trade policy was the province of Ways and Means, Finance and a few trade lawyers. “Those days are over,” said Brown, who led House Democratic opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 and made trade a centerpiece of his successful 2006 midterm campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.

While the Finance and Ways and Means panels will continue to have major jurisdiction over trade, “more of the committees in Congress are going to … certainly speak into this,” Brown said.

A statement from Dorgan’s office said the hearings on fast track would examine whether trade deals negotiated under fast track had advanced the interests of Americans or of corporations.

“You’ll see a discussion about a new direction, and a new aggressiveness to try to change these trade policies that we think are weakening our country,” he said last week.

Dorgan plans to invite all freshman senators who campaign on a platform of “fair trade” to take part in the hearing. No freshmen serve on either the Ways and Means or Finance committees, and House Democratic freshmen have pressed for a prominent role in developing trade policy by arguing that trade was critical to their electoral success.
That effort continued with a March 9 meeting between Rangel and 26 freshmen. Freshman Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who has led efforts to give freshmen a greater role in trade, said Rangel asked the group to put down on paper what it thinks needs to be contained in a new, competitive trade policy.

Similarly, Brown and his six fellow Democratic freshman senators wrote to Baucus late last week requesting a meeting to discuss “transforming current trade policy,” in the Ohioan’s words.