Customs bill could reach finish line this week

House and Senate lawmakers are nearing an agreement on a customs enforcement measure, even amid some Democratic dissent, which would wrap up another key piece of President Obama’s legislative trade agenda.

Conferees said Monday night during their first public meeting that the goal is to put the final touches on a House-Senate conference report this week, about seven months after the Senate first passed the legislation in May.

{mosads}Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during a meeting in the Capitol that “these months of work has enabled us to narrow our differences and reach significant areas of agreement and I am confident that we’ll be able to close out the remaining issues and reach a favorable outcome.” 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) told reporters that the aim is to complete work this week and send a measure to the president’s desk even with the completion of tax extenders package and an omnibus spending bill looming.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted against the Senate’s measure, which passed easily on a 78-20 vote, said that the bill has been improved considerably and he is likely to support a final measure. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on Senate Finance, said that the conference report represents “a new playbook on trade.”

“This will be the strongest package of enforcement policies Congress has considered in decades,” Wyden said. 

But two House Democratic conferees — Reps. Sander Levin (Mich.) and Linda Sanchez (Calif.) — expressed doubts that a compromise could be reached that would gain their support.

Levin, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that he isn’t “optimistic that this committee will produce a product I can support.”

Levin said that he is concerned a conference report will retain what he called “very troubling changes to the negotiating objectives in TPA [trade promotion authority]— on core issues like climate change, human trafficking and immigration.”

He said that the climate provisions could prevent a multilateral agreement from being incorporated into the text of trade agreements or from negotiating fuel efficiency standards on a U.S. trade deal with the European Union. 

Wyden joined Levin in reiterating that environmental protections are a major priority for him and many Democrats.

“This bill cannot and will not in any way prevent the United States from negotiating climate agreements,” he said.

Levin also pointed to human trafficking language that would allow for fast-tracking trade agreements through Congress with countries that have major human rights issues as long as that country “has taken concrete actions” to implement sweeping changes regardless of the actual conditions on the ground. 

He also expressed concern that a currency manipulation provision aimed at punishing violators with additional duties on their imports is expected to get the axe.

That language, offered by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), was never expected to survive a conference because it is opposed by the White House.

Levin said the language addressing currency that is expected to survive “will do nothing to move the needle on this key issue.” 

“And while the conference report will likely include several provisions intended to strengthen the enforcement of U.S. trade agreements, those provisions are being oversold,” Levin said.

Overall, the measure reauthorizes the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, streamlines trade rules that aim to keep importers from skirting U.S. antidumping and countervailing duties, adds new protections for intellectual property rights and provides more tools to identify and address currency manipulation.

“Too often, companies sneak counterfeit goods past our borders,” Wyden said. “Foreign governments spy on our businesses and enforcers. They bully our firms into relocating jobs and turning over intellectual property,” he said.

“They try to undercut American industries so quickly that the U.S. is unable to act before it’s too late.”

Among other priorities, Wyden said the legislation “absolutely must close an egregious loophole that allowed products made with slave and child labor to be imported to the U.S.”

He said the final deal also must include the new trust fund for trade enforcement and must make the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center a permanent agency. 

Hatch said he hopes a final deal also will provide additional trade preferences to help Nepal recover from a devastating earthquake earlier this year.

The measure also is expected to include a new process to consider a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, or, at least define a clear path forward. 

Tags Charles Schumer customs Fast track John Cornyn John Cornyn Kevin Brady Kevin Brady Linda Sánchez Orrin Hatch Orrin Hatch Ron Wyden Ron Wyden Sander Levin Senate Finance Committee
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