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Harlem Globetrotter

Will Charlie Rangel help salvage a free trade agenda?

11:00 PM, Nov 29, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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THIS PAST JULY, at an event at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue that amounts to a kind of prom for trade policy wonks, the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) presented its annual Lifetime Achievement Award to outgoing Republican congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona. That was no surprise. Kolbe is a zealous free trader who led the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the trade pact with Canada and Mexico, in 1993; and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, in 2005.

But WITA also honored Kolbe's Democratic colleague Charles Rangel, the rhetorical maestro from Harlem, with its Distinguished Service Award. That tribute "raised a few eyebrows," says one Republican who attended the dinner. Yet according to this Republican--a former senior U.S. trade official with decades of experience--Rangel deserved the recognition. "I consider him to be a pretty pragmatic, practical guy."

That seems to be the private--and perhaps surprising--consensus among many Republicans who have dealt with Rangel on the Ways and Means Committee, the prominent House panel he will chair starting in January. Disregard his bombast and occasional flourishes of partisan hyperbole, they insist. When the chips are down, Rangel can be a dealmaker. "I don't think you could find a better chairman than Charlie" among Democrats, says one GOP source close to the committee. "I believe he will be eminently fair," says the former Republican trade official, who knows Rangel quite well. "He's not all that conservative, but he's someone you can work with."

Those in business and politics who believe in the benefits of tearing down trade barriers have little choice. For at least the next two years, they are going to have to learn to love Charlie Rangel. His committee--the most powerful in Congress next to the appropriations panels--has jurisdiction over not just trade but also taxes, Social Security, and health care. And since all revenue bills must originate in the House, it's safe to say that Rangel, along with the Speaker, will be the most important congressional influence on the U.S. economy.

The last Democratic chairman of Ways and Means was Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, who served for 14 years, helped President Reagan pass his tax cuts in the 1980s, and presided over the approval of important trade deals. Rostenkowski had a knack for working well with Republicans. We will soon find out whether Rangel sees himself in the "Rosty" mode.

Bipartisan comity, however, has all but vanished from the Ways and Means Committee over the past few years--a development blamed on the retiring Republican chairman, Bill Thomas of California, a brilliant man with a penchant for secrecy and prickliness. "Thomas has sort of run this as a one-man show," says a GOP source. "We get bamboozled on the Republican side just as often as the Democrats do."

With Thomas leaving, GOP committee members may find it easier to work across the aisle. "It's going to be more civil," says Rangel. Of course, he cannot speak for his fellow Democrats. Senior members of his committee--including Pete Stark of California and Jim McDermott of Washington--lean heavily to the left and often drive Republicans batty.

Having won back the House, Democrats can now set the agenda. But with a Republican president, they could run into two years of legislative gridlock. It is hard to imagine any real compromises on Social Security or health care, given the radioactive passions they arouse. Tax reform looks to be a dead letter. Republicans will probably press to make Bush's tax cuts (most of which expire in 2010) permanent, and Democrats will probably balk. Democrats are highly unlikely to pass any new tax hikes in such a closely divided Congress and with Bush still in the White House. While there is an outside chance for a global deal that would at least make an estate tax reduction permanent, the betting is that taxes will move to the back burner until after the 2008 presidential election.

What about trade? According to Rangel, of the committee's Big Four--taxes, Social Security, health care, and trade--the last presents the fewest obstacles to bipartisan compromise. The chief debate in 2007 will concern renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), also known as "fast-track authority." TPA allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that are shielded from amendment by Congress, which merely gets to vote up or down on each agreement. No serious trade pacts can be negotiated without TPA. It is due to expire in July.