If China and the United States agree on terms for China's membership in the World Trade Organization, American farm and business lobbies will quickly mobilize a vast national campaign to persuade Congress to enact the necessary legislation, according to participants in this effort.
The interests eager to see China in the WTO foresee a transformation in U.S.-Chinese trade relations--with huge new opportunities for American farmers and businesses. China's membership in WTO and subsequent opening of Chinese markets to foreign products would constitute "the largest market access agreement for American agriculture in history," said P. Scott Shearer of Farmland Industries, a giant farmer-owned processor and marketer of food products and grain.
Shearer and many colleagues from farm groups around the country have joined executives of large and small businesses in a coalition to press Congress for favorable action. This coalition has grown from modest origins just five years ago into a broad, well-organized alliance. Though elaborate, the coalition has not attracted much public attention.
Washington representatives of the interests involved meet at two different weekly sessions to discuss policy options and politics. Both the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have organized national efforts targeting about 60 members of the House through their home districts--"grass roots" support organized from Washington. For this year's vote on China's trade status, two to four big corporations were assigned to each of several dozen House members whose votes were in doubt.
The China market "has tantalized [us] for generations," said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade. Big businesses, particularly, see the potential for China to make some American firms very rich. The vote in Congress that would enable China to join the WTO is "really for all the marbles," in the words of Christopher Hansen, executive vice president and Washington representative of the Boeing Co.
Many key aides and members on Capitol Hill say the odds are excellent--some say overwhelming--that the House will approve permanent "normal trade relations" status for China to fulfill a WTO deal roughly comparable to the one Chinese and American negotiators nearly reached last April, before President Clinton decided the time was wrong to complete the negotiation.
When it comes up for a vote--early next year, probably, if a deal is struck this month--the proposal for permanent NTR will sail through the House, predicted a senior aide to a member of the House Republican leadership, because the deal will be seen as overwhelmingly advantageous to the United States. "We get new opportunities [because China must open its markets under the deal], they [China] get nothing new. . . . Only the ideological China-haters will be against it," the aide said.
An agreement like the one nearly completed in April is so favorable to so many American farmers and businesses that the coalition of interests supporting permanent NTR will be stronger than ever, Boeing's Hansen said.
According to several lobbyists and Capitol Hill aides, the decisive argument may be that once China is a member of WTO, other nations from Canada to Japan will gain access to its markets whether or not the United States grants China permanent NTR status--the legal key to American firms getting that access.
"Will we deprive ourselves of the benefits?" Boeing's Hansen asked.
Others predict a closer fight in the House. "The mood in respect to China has turned more negative in the last couple of years," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), a leading proponent of free trade. Matsui said some members who have supported one-year extensions of NTR status for China might vote against a permanent extension. But lobbyists say they expect more examples of the opposite kind--members who voted against NTR in the past who will vote yes when the issue is American access to the Chinese market.
Soon after an agreement is announced, the coalition supporting it will swing into action. A group of 100 or more Washington lobbyists for businesses and farm groups will gather under the big brass chandelier of Room H-137 in the Capitol to get their marching orders.
There will be men and women from Boeing, General Electric, Motorola and Kodak; Nick Giordano of the National Pork Producers Council will probably be there; so will Shearer of Farmland Industries. Myron A. Brilliant from the Chamber of Commerce may be in the room; so will Cohen of the Emergency Committee for American Trade.
At the front of Room H-137, the House Ways and Means Committee's slate-blue chamber with landscape paintings on the wall, Nicholas E. Calio, once responsible for President George Bush's congressional relations, will preside, along with Steven M. Champlin, a former aide to Democratic congressmen. Both men are lobbyists who represent the Business Roundtable and some of America's biggest corporations. They are founders and coordinators of an alliance of private interests whose cause is better Chinese-American trade relations.
The group will discuss the contents of a new agreement. Calio and Champlin will report their latest vote count, and if past practice is a guide, they will hand out some assignments to those present to target House members who need further persuading (The lobbyists see the Senate as certain to embrace permanent NTR). Calio will handle the Republican assignments, Champlin the Democratic ones. They'll be looking to repeat their successes with members like J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), who switched from opposition to support for NTR status for China this year.
Promoting trade with China, once the domain of a handful of big businesses, has itself become a big business. As a well-organized phenomenon it began five years ago, when Calio and Champlin were pressed into action by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), then the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski was upset that the business community wasn't organized to press its case for free trade. He asked the two lobbyists, each partners in downtown lobbying firms, to help get business organized.
Rostenkowski is gone, but the coalition he prodded into being has survived and thrived. Companies and groups have invested heavily in lobbying efforts, spending "millions of dollars," according to Calio. The Business Roundtable tripled its dues (to several hundred thousand dollars a year) to fund more extensive lobbying and grass-roots organization for free trade.
Though business has long been interested in free trade issues, the focus on China is relatively new. One key moment was a "frantic" phone call in 1995 from a Boeing executive in Beijing to his colleagues in Washington "who told us Boeing was never going to sell another airplane in China if there wasn't a more positive U.S.-China relationship," according to a knowledgeable source.
This came at a moment of tension across the Taiwan Strait set off by the visit of Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, to the United States for a college reunion. China had reacted angrily. And it had just announced its first purchases of European-made jetliners from Airbus--Boeing's competitor.
Since then, Boeing has been a leader in encouraging U.S. exporters to go "on the offensive," as one participant put it, to promote better relations with China. Its efforts are centered in Washington, but have trickled down, for example, to the Daylight Donuts shop in Wellington, Kan. (pop. 9000).
Wendell Freeman, 59, sells about 20 percent of his doughnuts to a plant that subcontracts for Boeing and other Kansas-based aircraft manufacturers. When the company has lots of contracts, its labor force expands and Freeman sells more doughnuts. Often, its ups and downs are a reflection of foreign orders. World trade "makes a difference even for a little company like I have," Freeman said yesterday. He has made this point to members of Congress from Kansas, Freeman said.
Promoting better Chinese-American relations means venturing into territory not commonly occupied by business or farm interests, and some critics have chastised American capitalists for being too accommodating to China's communist leaders. But those involved argue that the stable relationship they seek to promote for business is also good for the world and the United States.
Hansen of Boeing, for example, said good relations with China serve American economic and security interests. Others such as Tom Catania, vice president of the Whirlpool Corp., say getting China to play by the rules of the WTO will be a great accomplishment.
As more big corporations and interest groups have gotten involved, disputes and rivalries have grown, according to many participants. "A lot of people will tell you they are big players who are not," said the Washington lobbyist of one giant corporation. Aides on Capitol Hill say the business community exaggerates its effectiveness. The same aide said, however, that with control of Congress at stake next year, campaign contributions could make a bigger impression than usual.
Those who have challenged the new coalition in recent times seem impressed by its strength. One is Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who for years has tried to use trade as a lever to force China to improve its human rights record. She says the forces favoring freer trade with China, led by what she calls "the exporting elites," will invariably win in Congress because they have the power of money on their side.
Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (R-Ohio) is an example of how the pro-China-trade lobby can make its case. In an interview, Gillmor cited a study prepared by the Business Roundtable (one of dozens it commissioned in "swing districts") showing that 13 percent of the jobs in his district--18,000--depended on international trade. That study was released by Whirlpool, the biggest employer in Gillmor's district, at an event at its plant there.
In 1997, Gillmor voted against extending NTR status to China for another year, but in 1998, he voted in favor. He said he hasn't yet decided how to vote on permanent NTR for WTO membership, but added: "Essentially, this should be a trade issue. The way we treat China ought to be the way we treat other countries around the world."