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Why the Customs Bill Is a Legislative Bridge to Nowhere

The razor-thin margins in the House mean that a handful of substantive provisions still up for debate could swing the margin one way or the other.

The votes on behalf of fast track legislation in the House of Representatives don’t seem to add up. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently told the New York Times, “We’re not quite there, but we’re getting close,” regarding the vote count, while Speaker of the House John Boehner said on June 3rd, “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

The razor-thin margins in the House mean that a handful of substantive provisions still up for debate could swing the margin one way or the other. For example, the provision in fast track that would cut $700 million from Medicare in order to fund Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for workers displayed by trade is generating plenty of opposition. Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan plans to address a range of other unresolved key issues via a customs enforcement bill that he plans to move separately from the fast track legislation. As Ryan’s spokesman Brendan Buck recently said: “the customs and enforcement bill has always been the vehicle with which we’ve planned to reconcile differences between the two chambers on a range of issues.”

Substantive issues such as anti-trafficking and anti-child slavery measures; currency manipulation; enforcement against steel dumping; and language clarifying trade policy’s impact on U.S. immigration each are likely to be included in the customs bill Rep. Ryan is planning on moving forward (see the end of this fact sheet for additional detail on each of these issues). Each of these issues is paramount for different constituencies within the House – whose underlying votes on fast track authority could be determined by whether their own key issue is being seriously addressed and will be eventually enacted.

Unfortunately for Members who care about these issues, they are being sold a bill of goods if they believe that the provisions in the customs bill will become law. Rep. Ryan and others seeking votes in favor of fast track are making promises on behalf of acustoms bill that will go nowhere.

Here’s a few reasons why the customs bill is a legislative bridge to nowhere:

  • Conference committee: Enacting any of these provisions into law will require a conference committee between the Senate and House – when was the last time both chambers successfully navigated a conference committee on a major piece of legislation?

  • Senate dysfunction: This is doubly true now that the Senate is spiraling into further dysfunction

  • Republican leaders in both chambers are animated by passing fast track – not by the underlying issues that are supposedly being addressed by the customs bill and would require a conference committee to resolve. If they are successful in passing fast track, there will be little appetite to devote additional time to the customs measures.

  • The Ex-Im example: Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) recently secured a supposed pledge from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to vote for fast track in exchange for a vote on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank before its charter expires. Yet despite that pledge, the Ex-Im is almost certain to close its doors without a Senate vote.

Despite what Rep. Ryan and House GOP leaders may be saying, recent precedent and common sense both make clear that the provisions addressed in the customs bill will never be enacted into law. Rep. Ryan wants to pass fast track, not the customs bill.

Members whose votes on fast track are related to the legislative future of the measures addressed by the customs bill should recognize this and take into account before their fast track vote.

Additional details on some of the measures likely included in the customs bill vehicle:

  • Trafficking: Chairman Ryan intends to water down the Menendez trafficking amendment so that the TPP could be fast tracked without meaningful progress to stop human trafficking in Malaysia. However, Sen. Menendez has come out strongly against this strategy.

  • Currency: The Senate-passed customs bill included a Schumer amendment to make it easier to impose countervailing duties against countries that manipulate their currencies. However, the White House and Chairman Ryan strongly oppose the provision, so, even if the bill advances, it is unlikely to address currency.

  • Child Slavery: There is a provision in the Senate bill closing a loophole that allows for some products made by child or forced labor to be imported to the U.S. That provision is opposed by many big businesses, particularly chocolate companies, so they will likely fight to have it removed.

  • Steel: There are several competing versions of legislation to improve enforcement against steel dumping, including one offered by Sen. Brown that was included in the Senate bill. This is one of the biggest selling points about the bill, yet, given the lack of consensus on a path forward, it’s not clear which, if any, version might be included.

  • Immigration: Chairman Ryan has promised that the bill will include a compromise Cruz-Hatch amendment making it a negotiating objective to avoid changing U.S. immigration law. The amendment has already been watered down so far as to be meaningless, showing that it is not truly a leadership priority. At the same time, it has generated opposition from immigrant rights groups, who feel that, although the provision will not actually have any substantive effect, it is meant to demonize immigrants and discourage future changes to immigration policy.

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