- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

President Bush has selected a new U.S. trade representative with the technical expertise and savoir fare to confront the many challenges of the job. Ohio Rep. Rob Portman is an able legislator, with a proven track record of bridging differences in Congress — a skill that will serve him well with international negotiations.

Mr. Portman, formerly a trade lawyer, is also a statesman and has taken political risks to advance U.S. global leadership on trade, supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and trade promotion authority for Mr. Bush while representing Ohio, a state with some strong protectionist sentiments. Mr. Portman is also assured Mr. Bush’s ear, due to his close relationship with the president. These factors can only help the U.S. trade agenda.

The only downside to the decision was the president’s delay in announcing it. The post had been vacant since Jan. 7, when Robert B. Zoellick was nominated to be deputy secretary of state.

Mr. Portman was elected to Congress in 1992. He has served on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade and tax legislation, and has been a consensus builder, willing and able to effectively reach across the aisle. He has served as the White House liaison to the House Republican leadership and played a key role in Mr. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 election campaigns. He has been credited with helping Mr. Bush win the battleground state of Ohio last year. Mr. Portman also worked in the White House of the former President Bush.

Mr. Portman will have to draw on all this experience. His tenure will be defined by his ability to close a global deal with other World Trade Organization members in the ongoing Doha trade round, to obtain passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Congress and address the gaping U.S. trade deficit with China. The success of the Doha talks will largely depend on America’s ability to negotiate, with Europe and Japan, a coordinated and reciprocal reduction in farm subsidies, and the developing world’s willingness to accept those terms. Mr. Portman will have to be tenacious and strike difficult balances to make a deal. To win approval of CAFTA, Mr. Portman will have to convince lawmakers that the United States will not be unfairly inundated with goods produced with cheap labor. To win broader support for CAFTA, he should also consider backing reform of the trade tribunals that were established under NAFTA and operate in secrecy. Regarding the trade deficit with China, Mr. Portman will have to lean on Beijing to allow for an orderly appreciation of the country’s currency.

The White House has achieved a coup in nominating Mr. Portman. He is expected to win easy approval from Congress. Mr. Zoellick is also a good fit at the State Department, demonstrating that Mr. Bush has made a couple of good trades.

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