President Bush hailed last week's House vote on trade promotion authority as a major victory for farmers, ranchers and American consumers. But he left a few other winners off the list: StarKist, FedEx and nuclear power plant companies.
While the trade bill -- which is expected to pass the Senate today -- will affect broad swaths of American industry, a few lawmakers inserted language that will affect a handful of U.S. producers. Buried in the measure's lengthy text, these provisions highlight how congressional leaders reward allies for taking tough votes.
"It shouldn't surprise anyone that when a vote is close that there will be some special provisions in the bill," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.), who accused GOP leaders of rushing the measure last week. "It makes it clear why you need a little time to review something like this."
The measure, which lawmakers adopted 215 to 212 early Saturday morning, would allow the president to forge trade agreements that Congress could accept or reject but not amend. Bush pushed hard for it, saying it would convince other nations that they could strike deals with the United States without fearing the pacts would be dissected once they reached Capitol Hill.
But most House Democrats and some Republicans balked, forcing congressional leaders to troll for votes. While the bill pales in comparison with the giveaways President Bill Clinton promised during past trade debates, some members did extract concessions as the measure moved through the legislative process.
Tennessee Rep. John S. Tanner, one of the bill's most prominent Democratic supporters, inserted language in late June easing the processing fees that carrier companies such as Memphis-based FedEx pay the Customs Service for packages coming in from abroad.
"Congressman Tanner has been trying to work with the carrier companies and the Customs Service for more than a year to try to work out some kind of fee schedule that is both fair to the carrier companies and provides an adequate amount of revenue for Customs," said Randy Ford, Tanner's spokesman. He added that the current fee assessment is "arbitrary."
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) had opposed the trade bill when the House first voted on it in December, but he switched sides once House leaders assured him they would not lift tariffs on socks made in the Caribbean. Aderholt's district includes Fort Payne, the self-proclaimed "Sock Capital of the World."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) "needed my vote," Aderholt said in an interview yesterday, "and I needed some assurances he would look at that issue."
Thomas pledged that the tariffs would stay in place, although White House aides said this week that they were never in jeopardy. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans also promised Aderholt, less than three hours before the vote, that he would send staffers to the congressman's district to promote economic development there.
In the Senate, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats coalesced around a plan to suspend tariffs on nuclear steam generators, which help drive American power plants. According to a Senate aide, the measure made it into the bill despite the opposition of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and fellow panel Democrat John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), in part because it helped secure the vote of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Opponents argued that the measure would hurt a handful of small U.S. firms that produce generator parts and send them to Canada, where they are assembled and shipped back duty-free. But these members were no match for Kyl and such Democrats as Jean Carnahan (Mo.) and Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), both of whom face tough reelection bids. In a July 24 letter to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Carnahan, Torricelli and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said the measure would save U.S. power plants roughly $1.5 million per generator.
The measure, which was added as the Senate considered its version of the bill, stayed in through negotiations.
For StarKist, things happened late in the game. House and Senate lawmakers had been negotiating for weeks over whether to allow canned tuna from Ecuador into the country duty-free. But some U.S. tuna companies objected, arguing that it would hurt tuna operations in American Samoa and elsewhere.
Then Thomas proposed allowing only Ecuadoran tuna packed in foil pouches -- which accounts for roughly 3 percent of the domestic tuna market -- to come in duty-free. That gave StarKist, which has begun marketing the "Flavor Fresh Pouch," a competitive advantage.
"StarKist is a big believer in the tuna pouches," said Ted Smith, a senior vice president at H.J. Heinz, which owns StarKist. Smith said officials were pleased that Congress decided to aid "a growing business in the tuna industry."
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said the trade bills' relatively few special-interest provisions show how lawmakers are no longer willing to offer their votes for a project back home. "You just can't give them enough to compensate for what the voters will do to them back home, given the level of opposition to these trade deals," Wallach said.
As one lawmaker put it Friday night, Wallach said, "you really don't want to get a bridge if that bridge is going to outlast your tenure in Congress."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company