Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Behold, the Insane (and Possibly Illegal) Bi-partisan FTA Deal!

As you may have heard, the White House and congressional Republicans are currently battling behind closed doors over a way forward for the pending US free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.  National Journal [$] reports on the latest developments (emphasis mine):
House Republicans retreated from their plan to begin preliminary markup on the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but the public stalling may signal that negotiators are making better progress behind closed doors.

Several people involved in the talks said on Monday that weekend negotiations over Trade Adjustment Assistance moved the parties closer to a deal. The White House has made clear that it wants Congress to reach a deal on TAA before beginning the markup process on the bills.

A House Republican aide said that preliminary hearings, expected to get under way this week, have not been scheduled. The move could pave the way for a deal to be announced before markups begin.

An aide to Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said in an e-mail: “While no date has been set for the mock-markups, we remain optimistic that a bipartisan solution will soon be reached.”

Some stakeholders said that the biggest sticking point has been finding enough revenue to offset the cost of the program extension. The White House originally pushed for extending a version of the worker retraining funds that was expanded in 2009 to include service employees and health care. But it appears that the deal will be significantly scaled back....

Lawmakers from both chambers have floated a wide range of frameworks in recent weeks. The chief concern has been raising enough revenue to counteract the cost of TAA and tariffs that will expire when the deals come into force.

Several of the parties involved said that a large portion of the pay-fors could come from additional customs fees, although that money would be insufficient to cover the full cost of the package. But the revenue gap may not be insurmountable....

The negotiated agreement on the trade deals may be sufficient to gain the bipartisan support needed to advance a comprehensive package before August, but it may not be enough to win the backing of skeptical Democrats in the House. Once the deals are introduced, they will need only a simple majority to pass in both chambers.
For a moment, let's ignore the fact that these agreements have been completed and signed for about four years, and that the President alone has the power to submit the FTAs for congressional consideration and approval (a simple majority vote in both chambers without amendment and pursuant to strict timelines), and that the three agreements would undoubtedly pass the House and Senate all by themselves.

And let's ignore the fact that the TAA program, in whatever form, has proven itself to be costly, ineffectual (politically and practically) and economically unjustifiable, and that, because he also really wants these FTAs to be implemented, the President is in effect holding a hostage that he's not willing to shoot.

And let's ignore the fact that, even with an eventual deal on the TAA bribe subsidy, most House Democrats (and many Senate Dems too) will never, ever, EVER support these FTAs (as the article makes clear and the Senators themselves have admitted).

Instead, for a moment, let's just focus on the big bi-partisan agreement outlined above.  Why on earth is this "breakthrough deal" even being considered?

First, it's absolutely irrational.  As noted, the parties have reportedly agreed to impose new (or higher) "Customs fees" in order to offset the cost of the TAA subsidy and the lost tariff revenue resulting from the FTAs implementation.  But "customs fees" are simply hidden taxes on import consumers.  A quick review of the US Customs website on "customs users fees" makes this clear.  They're paid (mainly) by commercial transporters bringing goods (imports) into the United States, thus raising the costs of importation.  And those higher costs, of course, are eventually passed on to American consumers through higher import prices.

Thus, pursuant to the bi-partisan deal outlined above, the FTAs' great import liberalization benefits will be immediately and tangibly undermined by new taxes on those very same imports (and others)!  Amazing.  Heaven forbid that Congress fill the tariff gap created by the FTAs and pay for TAA by actually eliminating federal spending on, oh I don't know, one of its absolutely-critical research programs into cow farts or cocaine-using monkeys.  Nope, the Obama administration's (and some congressional Republicans') big plan is to offset the elimination of taxes on import consumers by... wait for it... raising taxes on import consumers.  (It's truly a mercantilist's dream come true!)  Even worse, those new taxes will be necessarily be much larger than the amount of the FTA tax cut because they also have to fund a politically and economically dubious subsidy program that isn't even guaranteed to buy the approval of the FTAs' current congressional opposition!

Only in Washington, folks.  Only in Washington.

Unfortunately, it gets even worse: the big plan might also be illegal under global trade rules.  Granted, the description above is way too ambiguous to make any definitive conclusions about the deal's legality, but assuming that the agreement would raise US customs users fees (or implement new ones) in order to generate revenue for the federal government, it would probably violate GATT Article VIII, which governs WTO Members' imposition of "Fees and Formalities connected with Importation and Exportation" (in other words, customs fees).  The key provision of Article VIII reads:
1.(a) All fees and charges of whatever character (other than import and export duties and other than taxes within the purview of Article III) imposed by contracting parties on or in connection with importation or exportation shall be limited in amount to the approximate cost of services rendered and shall not represent an indirect protection to domestic products or a taxation of imports or exports for fiscal purposes.
WTO panels have interpreted this provision narrowly, and an old GATT panel has actually looked into the US system of customs users fees.  In these cases, the panels have ruled that Article VIII's requirement that a customs fee be "limited in amount to the approximate cost of services rendered" is actually a "dual requirement," because the charge in question must first involve a "service" rendered, and then the level of the charge must not exceed the approximate cost of that "service."  They've also found that the term "services rendered" means "services rendered to the individual importer in question," and that the fees cannot be imposed to raise revenue (i.e., for "fiscal purposes").

Interestingly, a relatively recent Customs Department notice about an increase in the amount of applicable customs users fees makes clear that the US government's customs fees are intended to approximate the costs of customs services (e.g., inspection) actually rendered (emphasis mine):
On October 22, 2004 the President signed the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (Pub. L. 108-357). Section 892 of the Act amended Title 19 United States Code 58c to renew the fees provided under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), which would have otherwise expired March 1, 2005, and to allow the Secretary of the Treasury to increase such fees by an amount not to exceed 10 percent in the period beginning fiscal year 2006 through the period for which the fees are authorized by law....

CBP is increasing the fees by the amounts authorized so that they more accurately reflect the actual costs of providing the services for which they are charged. On April 24, 2006, CBP published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register (71 FR 20922) proposing to amend the regulations in accordance with the current statutory provisions by increasing the fees for: (1) customs services provided in connection with the arrival of certain commercial vessels, commercial trucks, railroad cars, private aircraft and private vessels, passengers aboard commercial aircraft and commercial vessels, and barges or other bulk carrier arrivals, (2) each item of dutiable mail for which a customs officer prepares documentation, and (3) annual customs brokers permits.
But now, the US government specifically and expressly intends to raise these fees (and/or others) in order to fund TAA and offset lost tariff revenue on imports from Korea, Colombia and Panama - absolutely nothing to do with the "actual costs of providing the services for which they are charged" or, in WTO parlance, the "the approximate cost of services rendered."  So, even assuming that this plan doesn't run afoul of more general WTO non-discrimination provisions by singling out certain countries, how is the deal even remotely WTO-consistent under the most conservative reading of GATT Article VIII?

I honestly have no idea.

But, hey, even assuming the plan isn't illegal, that doesn't change the fact that it's clearly insane.  So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

Could someone again please remind me how we got into this mess?

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