Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paul Ryan on Trade and Subsidies: Not Perfect, But Reason for Optimism (UPDATED)

Since the political world is currently obsessed withfocused on Mitt Romney's VP choice, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, there's no better time than now to steal a few cheap pageviews and look at how the dashing young nerd voted on trade barriers and subsidies during his 12-plus years in the US House of Representatives.  Fortunately, the good folks at Cato have done most of the legwork and have tabulated Ryan's votes on these issues between 1999 (his first year there) and 2011, and overall, Rep. Ryan's record is a mixed bag: he's been very good on trade barriers (supporting the free trade position 87% of the time - 46 of 55 votes) and so-so on subsidies (opposing subsidies 50% of the time - 11 of 22 votes).  The full list of Ryan's votes is pasted  at the bottom of this blog post here (and, of course, is available at Cato's website).  If you click on the legislation itself, you'll find Cato's "free trade" take on the bill.

A few comments:
  • Cato's list doesn't yet include votes for 2012, and there are two pretty big ones from this year that warrant mention.  First is Ryan's unfortunate 2012 vote in favor of H.R. 4105 - the bill to apply the US countervailing duty law to imports from countries like China and Vietnam that are designated as "non-market economies" under the US antidumping law.  I've discussed at length why that protectionist law was a very bad idea, and the legislation was opposed by grassroots fiscal conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and National Taxpayers Union.  But considering only 39 House Republicans were brave (and smart) enough to oppose H.R 4105, Rep. Ryan's "aye" vote certainly doesn't mean he's suddenly become a hardcore protectionist.  In fact, if you look at Ryan's voting history below, it appears he has a small blind spot for trade remedies measures (as do many Republicans, unfortunately), so this vote may be consistent with Ryan's previous position on trade and protectionism.  On the other hand, Ryan joined 90 other fiscal conservatives and voted against the 2012 reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank - a reversal from several previous votes in support of the Bank and its subsidies, so the Congressman may actually be a little better on subsidies than his Cato scorecard indicates.
  • Ryan's Ex-Im epiphany also parallels an overall improvement on trade and subsidies since entering Congress in 1999.   Ryan's worst vote in support of trade barriers is easily his 1999 support for steel quotas - an utterly indefensible vote - but, other than a few votes related to national security (Cuba, Burma, etc.), a couple inexplicable votes against letting Mexican trucks travel on US roads, and those aforementioned trade remedies votes, he's been quite good since the early 2000s.  Contrast this with a "fiscal conservative" like Rick Santorum, who not only voted consistently in favor of trade barriers but also sponsored myriad bills seeking to prohibit import competition and force US consumers to subsidize US producers (many of whom just-so-happened to be his constituents).  Clearly, Ryan's a big improvement over that kind of Republican.  Meanwhile, he seems to have been more willing to support subsidies - including farm subsidies - during his first few terms (although that 2008 auto bailout vote certainly isn't pretty).  However, more recently - perhaps in tandem with his position as a budget leader in the House - he has opposed almost all business subsidies, including those for US agribusiness.  This "evolution" reflects either shrewd political calculation (casting more principled - yet politically sensitive - votes as his seat becomes more secure) or a real policy improvement (perhaps as he learned just how these votes breed cronyism and harm the economy).  Maybe it's a little of both.
  • Perhaps Ryan's most interesting recent trade/subsidy vote is his 2010 opposition to the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act, which would have authorized the US Department of Commerce to impose countervailing duties on imports from countries that have "misaligned" currencies (h/t Marc Ross).  That bill - a WTO-inconsistent mess that would've provoked a trade war with China and opened the door to painful duties on imports from many countries, not just China - passed overwhelmingly in the House by a vote of 348-79.  Thus, Ryan's opposition reflects an admirably principled position in defiance of not only the House majority, but also a majority of his GOP colleagues.  It also puts Rep. Ryan in the entertaining position of disagreeing with his possible future boss, Mitt Romney, who unfortunately has supported labeling China a "currency manipulator" and slapping CVDs on Chinese and other imports due to their governments' currency policies.  As I've repeatedly lamented, Romney's position on China trade is bad policy and politics, but it's also likely nothing more than campaign bluster.  Ryan's opposition to China currency protectionism - when it actually mattered, no less - could be a welcome sign that, contrary to his promises, President Romney wouldn't attack Chinese imports on his first day in office.  Of course, Ryan's recent support for HR 4105 tempers this enthusiasm a bit, but that bill wasn't nearly as toxic as the currency measure.  So overall, this is a good sign that a Romney administration would, like Ryan's record on trade and subsidies more broadly, be good - but not great - on trade.
Not to mention a marked improvement over the current occupant of the White House.

[UPDATE: The Ryan trade vote table that was pasted into this post was causing some serious problems for the blog's formatting and interface, so it's been moved here.]

[UPDATE2: The Club for Growth's Andy Roth notes via email that Ryan also supported the 2010 "Congressional Made in America Promise Act"  - a bill that wasn't on the Cato scorecard and would "clarify the applicability of the Buy American Act to products purchased for the use of the legislative branch, to prohibit the application of any of the exceptions to the requirements of such Act to products bearing a Congressional seal, and for other purposes."  Again, Ryan joined a very large majority, but still: we all know how dumb such Buy American provisions are.]

[UPDATE3: Cato's Simon Lester opines on Ryan's Cuba-related votes, concluding that he is, in fact, a politician.  Shocking, I know!]

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