The Cost of Inaction

We’re about a year away from the 2012 presidential election, and it’s obvious to all that partisanship again is getting in the way of productivity. No, this won’t be a commentary about the chaos among Republican wannabes. Rather, this is about the apparent bullheadedness on Capitol Hill and how it affects the trade community.

Let’s start with Customs and Border Protection. In March 2010, President Obama made 15 recess appointments, among them Alan D. Bersin for Customs commissioner. As commissioner, Bersin is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Bersin’s nomination originally was held up by questions over whether he gave complete answers about domestic workers he hired to work at his home and whether he had completed the required I-9 worker forms for them. Bersin did pay all the proper taxes as required, so this was no “nannygate.”

But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wasn’t willing to go forward with the confirmation process. Who would have thought the Democrats would act against a president of their own party. Obama wasn’t willing to wait while the Senate dawdled on this critical position to security and trade, so Bersin was appointed without being confirmed.

Now, every indication is senators in one party won’t allow Bersin’s nomination to be considered. This has nothing to do with his qualifications and apparently everything to do with ego. Piling on to Baucus’s objections, a few arrogant senators decided they didn’t like that Bersin was installed as Customs commissioner without first being confirmed. Never mind that he is well-qualified and his nomination was announced in September 2009 and the Senate did little with it for six months.

If the Senate doesn’t want him, just vote him down. How is any of this in the best interests of the country, never mind the agency?

Another recess appointment was Eric L. Hirschhorn to be undersecretary of commerce for export administration. In that position, he heads the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. The Senate Banking Committee has unanimously approved Hirschhorn’s nomination twice. The last step in the process is a floor vote, but none is in sight.

Although there is a lot of disagreement between the parties about international trade, there certainly is agreement that increasing exported goods is a good thing. It sells U.S. products worldwide and increases jobs at home. Can’t we at least agree that reforming U.S. export license controls so international companies don’t design around quality U.S. products makes sense? Why has there been no vote on Hirschhorn’s nomination?

Francisco Sánchez is the recess appointee for undersecretary for international trade, a position that helps U.S. companies navigate doing business throughout the world. He, too, is eminently qualified, having held senior positions in government and the private sector. Like Bersin, Sanchez’s nomination hasn’t made it out of committee.

Now, the expansion of business opportunities throughout the world as a means of economic growth and job creation should be a no-brainer for both sides of the aisle, so why hold up this nomination?

The last trade nominee in question is Islam A. Dissiqui, whom Obama nominated as chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. Dissiqui was a lobbyist for Monsanto (he is referred to in some quarters as a “pesticide” lobbyist), so the hold-up of his nomination over questions about his commitment to environmental protection issues seems substantively related to the duties of the position to which he was nominated. But here again, why not vote the person down and allow the president to move on to another candidate? Why does President Obama allow these nominations to linger?

Some will say the delay in acting on these appointments was the result of overriding attention to the budget, health care, the debt limit and other significant economic issues, and yes, a few social ones. But surely there are senators who can multitask like the rest of us. Isn’t it time to call our senators to account, at a time when taking steps to restore the country’s economic health are needed, steps that surely must include close attention to the details of trade?

Could it be that one side of the aisle will do anything to make Obama a one-term president? Is the other side of the aisle so tongue-tied as to be unable to overcome such gamesmanship? Or perhaps the other side of the aisle is playing its own version of gamesmanship. Is partisanship so deep that compromise is impossible on even basic issues short of bringing the government to the brink of closing down?

What happened to doing what is good for the country?

Whether you love or hate the president’s nominees, doesn’t the American public deserve getting individuals in these key positions who are permanent?

And if you think the trade arena is bad, look at the Department of Justice, where only a handful of senior administrators have been confirmed. What a way to run a government.

Susan Kohn Ross is an international trade attorney with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles. Contact her at skr@msk.com.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe