Spurned on Trade Deal, Burr Targets USTR
Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is learning the hard way that being among the anointed is not the same as being heeded, after the Bush administration recently cut an 11th-hour textile deal with Vietnam that sideswiped the White House’s hand-picked candidate for the Senate in North Carolina.
But Burr is fighting back, in an unusual scenario that essentially pits the would-be Senator against the same powerful patrons who are expected to help carry him to victory next November. The North Carolina lawmaker is eyeing legislation that would eliminate the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the White House agency that spearheaded the trade talks.
“I think the USTR negotiated an agreement based on faulty numbers,” Burr said in an interview. “If this is a pattern, I personally believe we need to be rethinking the mechanism that we use to negotiate.”
Burr said it is “yet to be determined” whether the trade office can be reformed to reflect his interests. But he added, “That question is now raised, and I am asking whether USTR is broken and we need to fix it or whether the best thing is to start over again with something else.”
The chances are slim that any such proposal would ever reach the president’s desk — or be signed into law, for that matter.
But the situation reflects a growing pattern of discordance between the Bush administration’s policy making apparatus and the political needs of the White House’s hand-selected candidates.
Shades of this friction emerged in March, when former Rep. John Thune (R), the party’s 2002 candidate for Senate in South Dakota, blamed senior White House officials for failing to recognize the importance of drought relief in his bid.
Thune, whom President Bush had personally coaxed into running for Senate, lost the election by 524 votes to Sen. Tim Johnson (D).
“I think every Member of Congress from the Textile Belt who’s tried to work with this administration has had their legs cut out from under them,” said Robert DuPree Jr., a top textile industry lobbyist, after the recent textile deal was reached. “They were stabbed in the back.”
Referring to the White House, he added, “They don’t understand that free trade doesn’t play well in the North Carolina textile industry when we’ve been losing so many jobs there.”
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the agreement with Vietnam.
A senior USTR official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House recognized the “political component” in the textile talks but felt the agreement would ultimately be a boon to American manufacturers.
“I would question the assertion that this is bad for the textile industry,” the official said, claiming that the agreement would require Vietnam to cut back on textile exports by 30 percent. “Always the folks in the textile industry wish we’d whacked [trading partners] harder.”
Under the trade deal, textile imports from Vietnam will be allowed to climb from about $49 million in 2001 to $1.7 billion this year. Among other reasons, the Bush administration has claimed victory in the talks because imports were otherwise expected to hit $2 billion.
The deal represented a major victory for retailers, who sought looser restrictions on imports from Vietnam.
Textile Belt lawmakers and the domestic industry, which argued that the agreement would hurt a sector of the manufacturing economy that has hemorrhaged jobs in recent years, had urged the USTR to walk away from the talks almost from the outset, citing the Vietnam government’s hard bargaining.
“They had a chance to walk away, and they didn’t,” Burr complained. “The question is, does USTR have to be refocused so the objective is not to always come out with an agreement?”
Burr indicated he is pressuring the Bush administration to aggressively investigate whether Vietnam is serving as a point of “trans-shipment” of textiles from China.
The amount of fabric coming over from Vietnam “outstrips their production capability,” Burr said.
Much of the anger over the final agreement has been directed at the trade representative’s office because of what critics cast as a bait-and-switch, in which the USTR suggested it was rethinking some terms of the deal and then signed it over the April 26 weekend, when Members were out of town.
“I don’t think you can say she didn’t get a heads up,” said Mary Brown Brewer, a spokeswoman for Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). “It’s just that the levels were changed at the 11th hour. That’s when she found out [about the change], and that’s when she lodged her concerns.”
While the Commerce Department also had a seat at the table, insiders credit Commerce Secretary Don Evans for at least acknowledging the concerns of lawmakers and the textile industry in the process; the USTR offered no similar assurances, insiders said.
Dave Spooner, the USTR’s chief textile negotiator, declined to address the political implications of the deal, but said concerned lawmakers were kept abreast at every stage of the negotiations.
“From day one we consulted closely with the industry and with the Hill,” said Spooner, a former top aide to Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.). “This [agreement] is good for the industry, because [imported] Vietnam textiles will fall dramatically.”