- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, President Bush’s nominee for U.S. trade ambassador, clearly is committed to trade. In fact, he is trading a safe seat in Congress — and perhaps, some say, a chance to be speaker of the House — to accept the challenge of improving U.S. trade relations with the world.

Few of the odds makers who play the D.C. parlor game of guessing who will get which job in Washington had figured on Mr. Portman. That’s understandable; all too often we are surprised when an individual’s commitment to a cause leads him or her to abandon security and comfort for the uncharted course. Those who know Mr. Portman, however, say the nomination makes perfect sense. And every indication suggests he will be an outstanding advocate for free trade.

Mr. Portman has a long history of taking positive steps to promote free trade. Last fall, during the presidential campaign, he accepted the challenge of explaining the advantages of free trade to skeptical Ohio voters — no small chore. And just last week, he reiterated his commitment and vision. “Open markets and strong trade relations are key components to a more peaceful, stable and prosperous world,” he said. “Here at home, trade policy opens markets to create good jobs, a higher standard of living and greater economic growth.”

Such statements are not surprising, given his voting record. The Cato Institute has just released a report on trade and the 108th Congress, based on how members voted on 23 issues. Among colleagues often no more than fair-weather friends of free trade, Mr. Portman stands out as a consistent ally.

The Cato assessment is helpful because past is prologue: You can judge a man’s future performance by the track record he has already compiled. By this measure, Mr. Portman shows real promise to follow in the footsteps of previous trade ambassadors who promoted U.S. interests while moving toward freer and more open trade.

We can assume the 49-year-old Mr. Portman has great expectations for the trade post, because he’s giving up a lot. Washington insiders have said for years Mr. Portman is a man with the potential to rise high in congressional leadership. He already sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Would he have become speaker of the House? Now we’ll never know. But that he would abandon a career of bright possibilities indicates he wants to accomplish quite a bit.

I’m certain President Bush shares these ambitions because he took plenty of time to find a replacement for Robert Zoellick. The Economist, Britain’s international publication, recently praised Mr. Portman as “a respected Republican congressman” who “will be a good salesman for Mr. Bush’s trade agenda in Congress.” Rep. Benjamin Cardin, Maryland Democrat, agrees: “You couldn’t have a person with a better relationship with Congress and the president,” he said. Relations with Congress are no small matter, of course, because the two top items on the administration’s short-term trade agenda are facing lawmakers right now: the Central American Free Trade Agreement and renewal of Trade Promotion Authority.

Eventually, Mr. Portman must prove himself not just on Capitol Hill but also on the international stage. There is indeed much on the agenda. The World Trade Organization’s Doha round needs to be worked hard. What’s more, the Bush administration plans to press ahead with bilateral trade agreements.

Last week, an official told the Wall Street Journal trade talks soon will begin with five more Southeast Asian countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Negotiations are under way with neighboring Thailand, and the president signed a trade agreement with Singapore nearly two years ago. And let’s not forget two other administration long-term goals: the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and a free-trade zone for the Middle East.

Rob Portman has the talent and certainly the commitment to effectively pursue these objectives, to the benefit of the United States in general and farmers in particular. The first order of business is to let him do it. The Senate should move swiftly to confirm an excellent candidate for a crucial job.

Dean Kleckner is chairman of the Des Moines, Iowa, advocacy group Truth About Trade and Technology, an Iowa farmer and a past president of the American Farm Bureau.

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