Business groups headed to conventions to push lawmakers on Russia trade bill
August 20, 2012
Business groups will mount their next blitz on lawmakers to pass a bill normalizing trade with Russia at the upcoming party conventions.
The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will head to the Republicans convention in Tampa and to the Democrats event in Charlotte to hammer home the need to pass legislation extending permanent normal trade relations to Moscow when they return to Washington next month.
“Through radio and print ads, media interviews and panel discussions, the BRT agenda to grow the U.S. economy, including PNTR with Russia, will be highlighted at the conventions," said Tita Freeman, senior vice president for communications at the BRT.
The Chamber will blanket the conventions, as well.
"Yes, it will be on our agenda as well as we talk with members of Congress at both conventions," said Blair Latoff, senior director of U.S. Chamber communications.
"With a severely attenuated congressional calendar for the fall, we will be encouraging Members to focus on key priorities, which includes finally passing Russia PNTR and allowing the trade benefits to begin to flow as soon as possible," Latoff said.
Business groups have expressed disappointment that, despite bipartisan support on both sides of the Capitol, Congress failed to pass the legislation before leaving for the five-week August recess and will miss the deadline for Russia joining the World Trade Organization on Wednesday.
The groups are pressing for September passage with hopes that the measure doesn't slip to the busy lame-duck session. If that happens, U.S. businesses could face higher tariffs for their exports, leaving them at a disadvantage to exporters in Europe and Canada.
The House is scheduled for a tight eight days of work in September with an agenda that includes passing a continuing resolution and, quite possibly, a farm bill.
Business groups have spent a bulk of their time reassuring lawmakers that repealing the 37-year-old Jackson-Vanik provision, a U.S. law aimed at encouraging the emigration of Russian Jews with the threat of higher tariffs, provides benefits to U.S. businesses and isn't a "gift" to Moscow.
But the effort to normalize trade ties has been slowed by lawmakers frustrations over Moscow's support for Syria and Iran and questions over whether the government is dedicated to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The U.S.-Russia Business Council said this week that those who argue that Russia's WTO commitments are "not good enough" fail to recognize that their membership in the trade group is inevitable.
"In not extending PNTR, we only hurt ourselves by denying our companies the benefit of Russia's unilateral concessions," wrote Edward Verona, president and chief executive, of the USRBC, this week.
The Russian government has made its objections to the proposed human rights legislation under consideration by Congress "abundantly clear" and any "bill which incorporates such legislation would hardly be seen by it as a gift."
"It's time to move beyond this deadlock and pass PNTR so that U.S. business and jobs are not jeopardized in such an important emerging market," Verona said.
Shortly before leaving for the five-week August recess, House leaders said they were willing to pass the bill if the Senate and White House make commitments to clear the measure.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the chamber would take up the bill that combines trade and human rights legislation.
The measure would extend permanent normal trade relations to Moscow and include the so-called Magnitsky bill, which would punish Russian officials for their involvement in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after reporting government corruption in Russia.
The attachment of a human rights bill has been used to smooth the bill's acceptance by lawmakers although most have continued to raise concerns about Russia's foreign policy and human rights record.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said he expects the legislation to pass the lower chamber with a “strong majority.”
"Assuming an affirmative vote does occur in early September, U.S. companies will suffer only three weeks of potential disadvantage in the Russian market," Verona said.
House Republicans have said the White House did not press hard enough for the bill while Democrats have argued that Republicans got caught up in political messaging about taxes as time ticked away toward August.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said granting PNTR is a top legislative priority and has met with leaders on Capitol Hill to gain support.
The legislation appeared to coasting to completion after the Senate Finance Committee unanimously reported out a combined trade-human rights bill in July and the House Ways and Means Committee did nearly the same, with little dissent from lawmakers, shortly thereafter.
The Republicans begin their convention on Aug. 27 while Democrats kick off their party's event on Sept. 3.