Missouri lawmakers propose getting tough on Chinese imports

By Bill Lambrecht St. Louis Post-Dispatch Two Missourians in Congress say they intend to pressure the Obama administration to do a better job of enforcing trade laws that would protect Missouri companies and industries elsewhere from unfair practices by Chinese competitors. They were responding to a report in the Sunday Post-Dispatch of ongoing problems by companies that have won high-stakes trade cases in disputes with China but then encountered lax enforcement by the U.S. government. "This is absolutely outrageous, and the administration is stonewalling everybody," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau. The report highlighted industries around the country plagued by ongoing problems after successful proceedings in front of the U.S. International Trade Commission. In nearly every case, prescribed remedies -- in the form of punitive tariffs on Chinese imports -- are not being collected by Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department. For instance, Mid Continent Nail Corp., of Poplar Bluff, spent more than $1 million to win its trade case in 2008. Since then, the company has compiled evidence showing that Chinese manufacturers evade tariffs by shipping vast quantities of nails through third countries. But Customs officials have yet to unravel those schemes. Customs received some 300 complaints alleging import fraud during a recent 18-month period but has assessed relatively few penalties. Emerson said that she had forwarded the Post-Dispatch report to the White House and others in Congress and that she planned unspecified legislative follow-up. Emerson chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, and department heads routinely appear in front of her panel seeking funding. "I don't know if they (Customs officials) don't have the people to pursue this or whether they're afraid of rattling China," Emerson remarked. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said he believed that the lack of enforcement probably pre-dated President Barack Obama, "but this administration is not doing anything and actually is throwing roadblocks in the way. It's a significant issue not only for our state, but for our country." Luetkemeyer said he was preparing letters to colleagues in the House aimed at a broad effort to turn up the heat on the White House. A spokesman said Wednesday that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who heads a Senate trade panel, intends to introduce legislation shortly that would give the Commerce Department investigative authority in allegations of customs fraud. Wyden's legislation also would impose a 60-day deadline for determining whether such allegations are valid. Investigations now can take years. The senator intends to conduct a hearing in Washington within the next several weeks on Customs failures, the spokesman said. Leggett & Platt, of Carthage, a leading manufacturer of inner springs for beds, is among the companies that have won trade cases but endured an absence of enforcement. As recently as last month, company officials traveled to Washington to present fresh evidence of Chinese manufacturers shipping through third countries. Wendy Watson, Leggett & Platt's associate general counsel, said legislation is critical for companies like hers. "What we have now isn't working. The cheating is so pervasive that existing procedures don't address it," she said. Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing -- an alliance of steel companies and the Steelworkers union -- observed that the tariffs amount to a last-ditch effort to help American industries who have proved that they are victims of unfair trade practices. "You have to be virtually out of business or have suffered incredible harm before you can bring a successful trade case," he said. "The White House and Commerce Department love to talk about exporting jet engines to China. But you hear very little from them about guaranteeing a level playing field for import-sensitive industries." Paul said he believed that legislation such as Wyden proposes can pass this year, but others aren't so sure. Congress already has a full plate of trade issues, they noted, with the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement about to be considered in the House and trade pacts with Colombia and Panama being ironed out. Adam Gordon, a trade lawyer in Washington who supports Wyden's approach, observed that deeply held views on trade also can come into play. "One thing we've struggled with here is trying to keep people from getting hung up on the free trade versus protectionism argument. This is about law enforcement," he said. Read original story here