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US Trade: Don’t Count on Congress

Harry Truman was surely not pleased with the 80th Congress.

They only passed 906 bills, and it was difficult to imagine how they could have accomplished so little during their two-year session.

Truman was demonstratively angry.  He scolded Congress, calling them the official “Do-nothing Congress.”

So here we are, sixty-five years later, relaxing during the 2013 summer Congressional recess. How do you think Harry would characterize our current 113th Congress?

As of today, our Congress has only passed twenty-two bills, plus there are four additional bills sitting on the President’s desk.

At this rate, they are on track to pass at least 100 bills by the end of the session in 2014.

Did I just say 100 bills, as compared to 906 bills? Perhaps we need to redefine what “do-nothing” means!  Perhaps America’s new national rhyme is:

“How many bills could Congress pass, if Congress could pass bills?”

The 110th Congress passed 460 Bills (2007-2008).

The 111th Congress passed 383 Bills (2009 — 2010).

The 112th Congress passed about 220 Bills (2011-2012).

The 113th Congress is on track to pass 100 Bills (2013-2014).

House Speaker John Boehner was recently questioned by Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about the productivity of the 113th Congress. Speaker Boehner said that Congress “should not be judged on how many laws we create, we ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.” He was indicating that we have enough bills, and perhaps we should start repealing some versus passing more. Does that mean that the trend is to head south, and that Congress should come to their work sessions solely to repeal bills that we already have?

Well, it certainly doesn’t look like the American Public is buying that theory. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and 57 percent say they would replace every member of Congress if they could.  Clearly, something needs to change.

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Now, let’s also try not to make things up. Certainly, as more and more legislation comes to the floor later in the session, the number of passed bills could accelerate over time. However, the stark reality is that at the 11 percent passage rate (as compared to the original do-nothing Congress) – what are we really dealing with? — this is our first official “LESS THAN  DO-NOTHING CONGRESS?”

What kind of democracy have we developed?  Has our government actually ground to a halt? NOTHING is getting done and less than nothing is being done with regard to trade related matters.

If Congress were paid for performance (or by piece rate, as we say in the apparel industry), then they would surely receive no salary.

Likely, there are some doubters still reading this message and they are probably thinking: “Well, the twenty-six bills they actually did pass must be very important ones.”

OK, that’s fair, let’s take a look at a few of them:

Certainly there are a few very important ones like S47 (signed May 7)  or The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (side note — that this was actually delayed from 2012).  And then there is the still unsigned Student Loan Certainty Act (HR1911), as well as the Hurricane Sandy Relief Act (HR 41) and the No Budget, No Pay Act (HR325).

However, among the few, presumably important twenty-two signed bills we also have:

  1. HR 1071 — Specifies the size of the precious metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins (May 17).
  2. S 982 — “The Freedom to Fish Act” safeguards fishing access to the Cumberland River in Kentucky (June 3).
  3. HR 1246 — “The District of Columbia Chief Financial Officer Vacancy Act”  authorizes the treasurer to act as CFO in the event of an emergency (May 1).
  4. HR 258 — “The Stolen Valor Act of 2013” prevents people from fraudulently claiming Medals of Honor (Jun 3).
  5. HR 2383 — Named the “Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge in St. Louis” (Jul 12).

Do any of these bills have anything to do with commerce or trade?

Where’s the beef?

Let’s face it, our common issue for the textile, footwear and apparel industry is COMMERCE, and that issue is NOT getting any attention.

Take, for example, the GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) Renewal that was due July 31st. We were first told that it might not make it into the House schedule, as they were too busy. Then, concerned individuals in the House rushed the bill forward and asked the Senate to match it. Everything was ready to go, but Senators Hagan and Coburn put a hold on it. Senator Hagan withdrew her objection, but Senator Coburn locked the bill up. Even though his intent was quite good (as he objected to how the bill offsets the $869 million that is set aside to fund it), the end result is both sad and painful. By putting the brakes on the bill, we likely have done more harm than good, because halting the program hurts stakeholder confidence. Investors definitively lose trust in the very government that put the original GSP bill out there over forty years ago. If the GSP has been ok for forty years, then why is it suddenly problematic? Clearly, the system is failing, and we are losing “face” to the entire world trade community. Failure to renew the GSP hurts US domestic manufacturers and will likely raise the cost of products to the American consumer.

In Maine, our new US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, recently visited a New Balance shoe factory to discuss the Trans Pacific Partnership agenda. Mainers who aren’t sure what to do next, often say:  “Well we can’t dance, and it’s too wet to plow.”  So, instead of moaning over what our government has failed to do with our apparel, footwear and textile international trade issues, let’s just switch the paradigm and try to explain to government what some of the key items are.

Here we go:

#1 – Rollover GSP -do it soon, because analysts say it’s costing our US economy $2 million a day for every day that we delay.

#2 – Move forward on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal with twelve involved countries. Resolve the Vietnam based issue over yarn forward and short supply and get the deal done.

#3 — Take T-TIP seriously (T-TIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the USA and Europe). T-TIP would be an absolute winner for the US economy.

#4 — Resolve the MTB (Miscellaneous Tariff Bill) issue. This bill provides duty relief for raw materials that are not available domestically, and are often used in US manufacturing. Some in Congress label MTB’s as earmarks, and that’s just silly. The bill expired 12/31/12.

#5 — Work on the Customs Reauthorization Act. This helps expand trade, and insures that US Customs has the right assets to do their job.

#6 — Pass the TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) This allows “fast tracking” for the Executive Office on Trade Legislation , an easier route for trade legislation.

Those of us in the textile, apparel and footwear industries are forward thinking. Our livelihood depends on trade. As a tool, we look at comp store sales and we compare the past to the present. Generally, we try to do better each year. We wonder if this is the same method that our Congress is using to assist us with commerce and trade. Are they going forward or backwards? Will we have a future Congress that only repeals laws, or one that passes forward thinking and progressive commercial legislation?

Congress — if you can hear us — please do help. We really can’t dance, and it’s truly too wet to plow. If 83 percent aren’t happy with you, then at least try to do something for the17 percent that are still on board.

We honestly don’t know what to do next…do you?



Rick Helfenbein is President of TellaS Ltd (Luen Thai USA) and Vice Chairman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He is a strong advocate of a robust US Trade Agenda and often lectures on the subject of supply chain and international trade at prestigious universities around the country. He participates annually in the Consortium for Operational Excellence in Retailing at Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business.