Canton Repository

April 4, 2005

Portman has chance to help Ohio as top trade representative

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s selection of Rep. Rob Portman as his top trade negotiator positions the Ohio Republican to help shape the nation’s trade agenda in ways that will inevitably affect the state’s commercial interests in the process.

A strong bet to win Senate confirmation, the Cincinnati congressman could almost certainly find himself with the opportunity to gear trade agreements in favor of Ohio companies and exports, observers say.

But some who are familiar with the job caution that despite the opportunity, it’s unlikely Portman would seek specific benefits for the state’s farms or factories. They say he is likely to take seriously his responsibility to serve the nation’s interest as a whole. Even so, the decisions he makes will inevitably have an effect on the state’s economy.

As the nation’s sixth-largest exporter, Ohio has a major stake in trade deals. Exports including motor vehicles, machinery, plastic, steel and rubber support almost one of every 11 jobs in the state, according to state officials.

Meanwhile, trade remains a sore subject in more depressed areas of Ohio where the steel industry has long complained about illegal competitive imports.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson, the state’s point man on trade, called Portman an excellent choice for the job.

“His Ohio roots can only help him understand the nature of exporting and manufacturing, but I’m not counting on Rob to do special favors for Ohio,” he said.

As the nation’s top trade official, Portman would face a challenging agenda including persuading Congress to approve a free-trade agreement with the Dominican Republic and five Central American nations. It is shaping up as the most controversial trade deal since congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement a dozen years ago.

Portman supported NAFTA then as a freshman legislator. In subsequent years, he has generally hewed to a free-trade philosophy, although with some deviations.

A former trade attorney, he has largely avoided becoming associated with parochial trade interests in his congressional district or state. His advocacy for Chiquita Brands in the 1990s was an exception.

The Cincinnati-based company was suffering from European Union limits on the company’s banana exports. Portman sponsored “carousel” legislation that would have allowed retaliation against European nations that were ignoring World Trade Organization rulings.

Although often opposing protection for American industry, Portman voted for a nonbinding one-year ban on steel imports in 1998. He also backed the House version of a subsidy-laden farm bill in 2001. Both were considered anti free-trade positions.

Only a few previous U.S. trade representatives have served in Congress as Portman has.

Ohio lawmakers, who generally praise the Portman nomination, believe their colleague’s familiarity with the state and the Congress bodes well for Ohio interests. In addition, they make the case that if he can open markets across the globe and increase compliance with trade laws, Ohio exporters will benefit. They stop short of suggesting he would craft deals favoring Ohio.

“I think in trade agreements he would take a broader view of what’s good for the country,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. “I don’t think Rob would be provincial in dealing with anything that’s as sensitive and as important as a trade agreement.”

Regula, who says he is “very close” to Portman, expressed confidence Portman would treat economic interests in Regula’s congressional district fairly. Regula typically votes in favor of initiatives to protect domestic steel producers, while Portman has opposed most of those measures.

Area manufacturers, including the Timken Co. and Republic Engineered Products, stand to win or lose as a result of negotiations later this year when World Trade Organization members meet in Hong Kong.

“There will be lots of proposals on the table to weaken U.S. trade laws, and what we would like to see is a very aggressive position from the U.S. government and (nominated) Ambassador Portman working in this process to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Andrew G. Sharkey III, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Cedarville, also sees advantage in Portman’s knowledge of the state.

“He will understand the Ohio perspective, and when I pick up the phone and talk to Rob I’m not going to have to educate Rob on Ohio’s perspective,” he said.

Because trade deals must win approval from Congress, wheeling and dealing to generate support among lawmakers is inevitable. Before NAFTA passed, for instance, then-U.S. Trade Rep. Mickey Kantor had to negotiate specific NAFTA provisions to assuage domestic sugar interests and growers of some specialty crops in Florida and elsewhere.

Gary Hufbauer, a trade economist at the Institute for International Economics, said there’s plenty of opportunity to favor specific economic interests in the thick, complex trade agreements.

“It would be hard for a trade representative not to affect interests in his state,” he said. “You’re always weighing up how much to give this or that constituency in exchange for this or that number of votes. That’s how the game is played and that is considered very reasonable.”

William E. Brock III, who was trade representative for President Reagan, shares a congressional background with Portman. He served as a Tennessee House member and senator before joining the administration.

Although political deals are cut during negotiations, Brock said it “never entered my mind” to slant trade agreements toward his state. “I don’t think I ever thought like that. I wasn’t going to run again. I wasn’t trying to pander and I think it would be a mistake if you did.”

Former Minnesota Rep. Bill Frenzel, a trade expert at the Brookings Institution, doubts Portman will have the opportunity to craft deals to Ohio’s benefit, but he added that he can’t rule it out.

“He is a normal human being ... so maybe some of that (Ohio interests) will come back to him just out of memory,” he said. “But I think he will find that he has so many groups that he has to cater to and so many congressmen that he has to win over that he probably won’t have a lot of time to worry about doing something really good for Ohio.”

Commercial interests that would be affected by trade deals are important players when agreements are hammered out or sent to Congress for approval.

Jamal Abu-Rashad, economist at Xavier University in Cincinnati, sees an advantage for companies such as Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble that already have relationships with Portman.

Lobbyists for those firms “might have a competitive advantage in dealing with the country’s top trade negotiator,” he said. “They don’t have to go through the awkwardness of introducing themselves.”