Members Keeping the Heat on French Companies

Posted April 2, 2003 at 6:13pm

If Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) has his way, the federal government will stop using French-made headstones to bury U.S. servicemen at Arlington National Cemetery.

“That is simply not right for our fallen heroes,” McInnis wrote Wednesday to his fellow House Members and the head of the Veterans’ Affairs Department. “They deserve far better.”

The effort is just the latest attempt by Members to parlay the growing disenchantment with countries that oppose war in Iraq into economic sanctions against companies from France, Germany and other nations.

The effort will come to a head today when the House votes on a broad measure offered by Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) that would prohibit many French and German companies from grabbing a share of the billions of dollars worth of contracts to rebuild war-torn Iraq.

The provision, which will be offered to the supplemental spending bill to pay for the war, would bar any rebuilding funds from going to businesses based in a country that “publicly expressed” opposition to the war. [IMGCAP(1)]

To avoid damaging the U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign corporations, the legislation gives President Bush broad flexibility to waive the ban if it hurts American jobs.

Though the amendment failed in a 35-27 vote in the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Nethercutt believes his support is growing and that he may prevail on the floor.

“The calls have been pouring in,” said a Nethercutt spokeswoman April Gentry.

Still, the provision has generated strong opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike who believe it is a snap reaction to the European dissenters.

“It makes good rhetoric for a speech, but it is poor foreign policy,” said John Scofield, GOP spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Most senior members of Appropriations joined with Democrats to defeat the amendment in committee because they believed it would damage the Bush administration’s ability to re-establish strong diplomatic relations with Germany and France after the war.

“I tried to urge my colleagues not to be swayed by the passions of the moment,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) “We all have been frustrated by countries like Turkey, Germany and France, but we have to look at the long haul of these things.”

Repairing diplomatic relations does not appear to weigh heavy on the minds of those who plan to support Nethercutt’s amendment.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) said she thinks it is a “reasonable amendment” that she likely will support.

Though Nethercutt and Dunn like to fight for the Boeing Co., Microsoft and a range of large international U.S. corporations based in Washington state, they do not believe the amendment will hurt domestic jobs.

“We are calling around, but I don’t think it will hurt,” Dunn said.

The trade group for the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations agrees.

“We won’t oppose it,” said Todd Malan, executive director of the Organization for International Investment. “The amendment is carefully crafted to ensure that U.S. jobs are not put in jeopardy.”

A spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he was unsure how his boss would side on the amendment. “Emotion can get in the way, so you need to be careful,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

The Nethercutt amendment is the most comprehensive of the efforts under way in Congress to punish French and German companies.

But several other Members have launched more targeted drives.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has offered legislation to allow San Diego-based Qualcomm to compete for a massive contract to build Iraq’s wireless telephone network after the war.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and a group of House Members sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling on the Pentagon to cancel a longstanding contract with the French-owned company Sodexho, which feeds thousands of Marines.

“My colleagues and I abhor the idea of continuing to pour American dollars into a French-based firm when those dollars could be feeding our wartime economy,” Kingston wrote in urging Rumsfeld to cancel the contract.

But Sodexho has received strong support from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a public opponent of the war in Iraq who represents the firm’s U.S. headquarters in Gaithersburg.

According to Sodexho officials, the company has 40 percent of its workforce in the United States, including 2,500 people in Van Hollen’s district.

Kingston is “taking something that the company has nothing to do with — that being French foreign policy — and punishing them for it,” said Van Hollen spokesman Afshin Mohamadi.

Sodexho officials believe that the company’s contract appears to be safe.

“As Members of Congress have taken the time to learn more about this, a lot of them have put our messages of support,” said spokeswoman Leslie Aun.

But now that they are in the clear, Sodexho officials have yet to say whether they approve of the Nethercutt amendment.

“We have not decided yet,” she said. “In general, we are against any laws that could hurt American jobs.”