ICYMI: Has Rob Portman flip-flopped on trade? [Cincinnati Enquirer]

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Key Points:

  • “An examination of Portman’s record in Congress and during the Bush administration shows he's consistently embraced free trade, arguing that it opens markets for U.S. products….Over his 20-year career in public office, the Terrace Park Republican has supported 14 free-trade agreements and opposed none until this year.”

  • “Portman's most notable achievement as the U.S. trade representative, a post he held from May 2005 to May 2006, was winning passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Congress. The vote came in the summer of 2005, when lawmakers were increasingly skeptical of the benefits of free trade, and Portman personally lobbied dozens of lawmakers to support the deal.”

  • “In another case, though, Portman did not push the Bush administration to impose quotas on China when that country was flooding the U.S. market with steel pipe. The International Trade Commission had recommended quotas to slow the flood of steel, which was causing job losses and disruption in the U.S. steel industry.” 

  • “At a news conference in 2006, Rob Portman stood before a tableau of U.S. and South Korean flags and extolled the promise of a nascent free-trade alliance with the Asian nation […] Fast-forward a decade, and Portman now regularly blasts South Korea and other foreign countries for dumping cheap steel onto U.S. markets […] The two events, ten years apart, highlight Portman’s long and sometimes contradictory record on trade—one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 election.”

  • “Portman’s opponent in the Senate race, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, says the GOP incumbent has had an election-year conversion on free trade now that it’s become a political flashpoint. Exhibit A in the Democrats’ flip-flop case: Portman’s announcement in February that he would oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping deal negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 other countries, mostly in the Asian Pacific region. More recently, Portman told Ohio reporters he'd be “very open to revisiting” NAFTA, a surprising statement given his long-standing support for that deal, which passed Congress - and which Portman voted for - in 1993 [….] When Portman came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, it’s no surprise that Strickland pounced. He said Portman had ‘turned his back on Ohio's workers every chance he got’ until now. ‘It’s really interesting what the threat of an election will do,” Strickland said of Portman’s anti-TPP stance.”

Has Rob Portman flip-flopped on trade?
Cincinnati Enquirer, Deirdre Shesgreen
September 30, 2016
http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/politics/2016/09/30/has-rob-portman-flip-flopped-trade/91277806/

At a news conference in 2006, Rob Portman stood before a tableau of U.S. and South Korean flags and extolled the promise of a nascent free-trade alliance with the Asian nation.

At the time, Portman was U.S. trade representative for President George W. Bush, and the Ohio Republican said new negotiations with South Korea could lead to the most sweeping trade agreement in 15 years.

“Removing trade and investment barriers between our two nations … will increase market access for our farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses to the dynamic and growing Korean economy,” Portman said at the February 2006 event.

Fast-forward a decade, and Portman now regularly blasts South Korea and other foreign countries for dumping cheap steel onto U.S. markets. That practice, Portman says, cost 1,500 Ohio steel jobs in 2015 alone.

“The U.S. market is being flooded with unfair imports,” Portman said in testimony earlier this year before the International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial agency that investigates unfair trade practices.

The two events, ten years apart, highlight Portman’s long and sometimes contradictory record on trade—one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 election.

Portman’s opponent in the Senate race, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, says the GOP incumbent has had an election-year conversion on free trade now that it’s become a political flashpoint.

Exhibit A in the Democrats’ flip-flop case: Portman’s announcement in February that he would oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping deal negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 other countries, mostly in the Asian Pacific region.

More recently, Portman told Ohio reporters he'd be “very open to revisiting” NAFTA, a surprising statement given his long-standing support for that deal, which passed Congress - and which Portman voted for - in 1993.

An examination of Portman’s record in Congress and during the Bush administration shows he's consistently embraced free trade, arguing that it opens markets for U.S. products. Once those deals are in place, Portman has forcefully advocated cracking down on global trade cheats.

“It would be a big mistake for us not to have the ability to expand exports,” Portman said during a recent meeting with the Enquirer’s editorial board. “We just need to have a level playing field.”

The real question may not be whether Portman has flip-flopped on trade, but whether his push for “free but fair” trade is effective.

The Trump factor

Trade is front-and-center this year thanks in large part to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has heaped scorn on free-trade agreements as a sop to big business and special interests.

“Our jobs are fleeing the country,” Trump said during Monday night’s debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The GOP candidate says states like Ohio have taken an outsized hit as free-trade deals erode America’s manufacturing sector.

Trump’s criticisms have upended politics as usual in the Republican Party, whose leaders have championed free trade for decades as an economic boon for American exporters.

“What Trump has done is he’s hijacked an issue of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and made it his own,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “There are a lot of Chamber of Commerce Republicans in Congress and throughout the country who are extremely uncomfortable with his position.”

Portman’s discomfort is perhaps the most glaring. He's not only a quintessential Chamber of Commerce Republican, Cohen said, he's also a one-time U.S. trade negotiator. Over his 20-year career in public office, the Terrace Park Republican has supported 14 free-trade agreements and opposed none until this year.

He and other Republicans have argued that free-trade deals generally knock down barriers for U.S. exports, create U.S. jobs, and make this country more competitive in the global marketplace. But Portman has also been mindful that free trade comes at a human cost.

“From an economic point of view, trade will always be something positive for growth,” Portman told the Enquirer in 2005 when he was midway through his stint as Bush’s U.S. trade chief. “But the question is, in a particular district, how does it affect not just the economics but the people?"

When Portman came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, it’s no surprise that Strickland pounced. He said Portman had “turned his back on Ohio's workers every chance he got” until now.

“It’s really interesting what the threat of an election will do,” Strickland said of Portman’s anti-TPP stance. He said the TPP deal and similar pacts are “negotiated pretty much in secret” and designed to benefit powerful special interests, at the expense of American workers.

Portman has staunchly defended his opposition to the TPP, saying it’s consistent with his record because the agreement would not provide a level playing field for U.S. companies and their workers. Among other objections, Portman cited a provision that says only 45 percent of an automobile would have to be made in a TPP country to qualify for the agreement’s benefits—such as tariff-free importation to the U.S. market.

Portman and other critics said that would put U.S. auto workers at risk of unfair competition from China and other low-wage Asian competitors.

“I’m for expanding exports, opening up markets,” Portman said in February, “But I’ve also always said it’s got to be fair.”

What does his record as the Bush administration’s trade chief show?

Portman's most notable achievement as the U.S. trade representative, a post he held from May 2005 to May 2006, was winning passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Congress. The vote came in the summer of 2005, when lawmakers were increasingly skeptical of the benefits of free trade, and Portman personally lobbied dozens of lawmakers to support the deal.

In a 2012 interview, Portman said 50 lawmakers had come out against the bill or were leaning ‘no,’ and he had to move them to the “yes” column to get the bill through the House.

“I spent hundreds of hours on that,” he said. “No trade representative had ever spent so much time on Capitol Hill, and we won that.”

But Portman has emphasized that he didn’t just focus on opening new markets. He also pursued stronger enforcement, including filing the first successful trade suit against China at the World Trade Organization. In that case, China was found to have imposed improper tariffs on auto parts imported from the U.S. and other foreign countries.

Portman said that case, among others, illustrate his commitment to cracking down on China and other countries that regularly flout international trade rules.

“We got very aggressive” on China, beefing up staff and resources devoted to pursuing trade violations, Portman said in the 2012 interview.

In another case, though, Portman did not push the Bush administration to impose quotas on China when that country was flooding the U.S. market with steel pipe. The International Trade Commission had recommended quotas to slow the flood of steel, which was causing job losses and disruption in the U.S. steel industry.

During Portman’s tenure, Bush rejected that ITC advice in part because other American businesses were benefiting from that cheap Chinese steel.

Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western University, said Portman was clearly trying to balance two competing interests. The problem, she said, was that neither Portman nor Bush tried to craft a bigger-picture manufacturing strategy that would have avoided pitting two domestic industries against each other.

“You can argue these decisions really did undermine overall capability in steel, but it’s partly because there was so much of a piecemeal strategy toward U.S. manufacturing,” said Helper, a former senior economist in the Obama administration. “You can imagine a more coordinated approach.”

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