Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Welcome Transparency Improvement for US Trade Remedies

There is little doubt that I've been a rather vocal critic of the Commerce Department's treatment of various methodological and policy issues that arise in the US trade remedies (i.e., antidumping and countervailing duty) cases that the agency administers.  So let me take a moment to applaud an impressive improvement in the Department's online filing system and documents library, IA Access, that was unveiled yesterday.  Previously, only interested parties to specific trade remedy litigation could use IA Access and review public documents - e.g., case briefs and Department memos detailing its policy decisions and/or calculations - that are filed in a particular case.  This high wall made it virtually impossible for "normal people" (including journalists, policy wonks and, ahem, pesky trade bloggers) to review these documents and report on their details without trucking on down to the DOC Reading Room in Washington, DC and scouring hardcopies in the public files.  Moreover, the website's functionality was limited, so even if you were one of the "privileged few," serious research was extremely difficult.

Although this impediment sounds like a minor thing, it isn't: DOC makes significant policy and methodological decisions in the course of trade litigation, but only publishes a relatively vague overview of such moves in the Federal Register and on its general website.  These "devilish details" can allow various myths about US trade remedy proceedings to persist, and they can play a very significant role in determining the duties that US consumers must pay as a result of these investigations - duties affecting billions of dollars in annual trade and totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.  As noted in a Cato Institute report on the US antidumping law:
The U.S. antidumping law enjoys broad political support in part because so few people understand how the law actually works. Its rhetoric of "fairness" and "level playing fields" sounds appealing, and its convoluted technical complexities prevent all but a few insiders and experts from understanding the reality that underlies that rhetoric.

In this study we seek to penetrate the fog of complexity that shields the antidumping law from the scrutiny it deserves. Here we offer a detailed, step-by-step guide to how dumping is defined and measured under current rules. In addition, we identify the many methodological quirks and biases that allow normal, healthy competition to be stigmatized as "unfair" and punished with often cripplingly high antidumping duties. The inescapable conclusion that follows from this analysis is that the antidumping law, as it currently stands, has nothing to do with maintaining a "level playing field." Instead, antidumping's primary function is to provide an elaborate excuse for old-fashioned protectionism.
In short, even though the livelihoods many American companies and consumers - and millions of dollars - are at stake, the trade remedies game is won and lost in the deep weeds of specific AD/CVD proceedings, and only a few folks had the ability to spot and report on these important developments.  Now, however, IA Access' improved access and functionality means that anyone with a computer, internet access and email address can register with DOC and begin to scour the agency's records to find the important "methodological quirks" buried therein.  Now, I'm well aware that there aren't a lot of wonks, bloggers and journalists doing this right now, but maybe that'll change now that IA Access lets them actually do it from the comfort of their offices or homes.

Lord knows I'd certainly welcome the company.

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