Finance Trade Priorities May Shift Under Wyden as Chairman

Finance Trade Priorities May Shift Under Wyden as Chairman

The expected appointment of Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana as the new China envoy could bring changes to the trade agenda in the Senate and put a veteran negotiator and free-trade advocate in Beijing.

Like Baucus, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who appears to be in line to take the gavel of the committee that oversees trade, has a long record as an advocate for increased American exports of products ranging from wheat to computers and software.

Wyden has declined to comment on his plans for the Finance Committee if he succeeds Baucus. But Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, ranking member on Finance, said he believed Wyden would be a strong partner on key issues. “He’s worked quite well with me to get international trade matters through,” Baucus said.

The to-do trade list includes a Baucus-Hatch draft renewal of expired fast-track trade and potential ratification of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement linking the United States to 11 other nations, including Japan. Another pending trade deal with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), will also be a priority, although there are deep partisan differences on a proposal to renew trade adjustment assistance for workers displaced by foreign outsourcing and imports.

Some longtime political observers point to nuanced differences between Baucus and Wyden on trade-related issues.

For example, Baucus has been a key driver behind TPP. Wyden, however, has voiced some concerns about the need to ensure there are protections for intellectual property and other interests, and he has criticized the administration for what he says is undue secrecy in negotiating an agreement that may have an impact on U.S. regulatory oversight of various industries.

Wyden said in an interview that he shared the concerns of liberals such as Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., about the need for close scrutiny of the TPP talks and other trade negotiations. “It’s important to have more transparency associated with those kinds of trade agreements. That’s something I’ve been on the record for, for a long time,” Wyden said.

Lobbyists and trade experts said the transition on the panel would require businesses and lawmakers to adjust to staff changes and a different approach by Wyden, who tends to take independent stands on some issues such as consumer privacy protection.

They said Wyden would also face a challenging transition as he takes control of trade and other issues under the purview of Finance. “He’s going to have to be a quick study,” said William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a pro-trade business group.

Reinsch predicted Wyden would be a passionate advocate for a number of priorities for high-tech companies, including opposition to overseas local-content requirements for data that could force multinational companies to move some servers and data collections abroad.

Wyden is the lone co-sponsor of a new digital trade proposal (S 1788) by John Thune, R-S.D., to bar curbs on the flow of data across borders and prohibit local requirements for data and computer networks.

In China, Baucus would succeed Gary Locke, the former Commerce secretary and Washington governor, who plans to leave the embassy in 2014 for personal reasons.

Greg Mastel, a former Baucus aide and a trade adviser, said the chairman would serve as a buffer in dealing with trade friction with China, similar to the role played by his mentor, former Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, who served as ambassador to Japan in the 1980s.

“The ambassador’s role is not to increase friction. It’s to communicate your country’s needs and concerns and keep a two-way channel of communications,” Mastel said.

For example, Mastel said Baucus could help to explain the emerging TPP coalition to China, which is not a participant.

Reinsch said U.S. businesses wanted Baucus to deliver a tough message to the Chinese government to treat them fairly, to abide by obligations under agreements, and to move away from subsidies and other preferences given to state-owned enterprises.

“My members — even those that are making money in China — are not happy. There are regulations, problems with stolen intellectual property and pressure to not do things and to do things. That’s got to be at the top of the list when Sen. Baucus gets to Beijing,” Reinsch said.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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