- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Of the several post-Dubai proposals surfacing in Congress, the only must-pass one so far is Sen. Richard Shelby’s reform package for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Mr. Shelby proposes to close the so-called Byrd Amendment loophole by requiring full 45-day reviews for all foreign government-owned companies; he wants more congressional notification and oversight of pending deals; he would formalize the committee in statute; he calls for reviews of more than 45 days for problematic cases; and he would elevate the secretary of defense to vice chair of the committee while adding the now-absent director of national intelligence. Mr. Shelby would also keep the chairmanship in the hands of the treasury secretary, which strikes us as less than ideal but makes sense in light of disarray in the Department of Homeland Security. A Shelby spokesman told us the bill is intended “to strike a balance between our open investment policy and national security.” It is a reasonable step in that direction.

Other bills are more problematic. About the best to be said is that the leading ones avoid protectionist pitfalls like barring foreign ownership, but they don’t go very far toward their stated goals of improving overall port security. They look hasty, even though much of the work behind them predates the Dubai fiasco.

A case in point is Rep. Daniel Lungren’s SAFE Port Act, which, though well-intentioned, is mostly bureaucratic reshuffling, exhortations to do better and money for untested and uncertain screening programs (much the same can be said of Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ bill). The Lungren bill creates a new cargo-security director in DHS; it sets up a series of demands for plans; it requires the vetting of maritime workers by “terrorist watchlists” which don’t actually exist as the bill defines them; it pushes “Greenlanes” to exempt relatively security-minded maritime companies from certain procedures.

Its biggest change is $800 million for security and screening, but some of the programs the bill would fund are problematic. For instance, DHS’s leading candidate for the overseas radiation-detection system the bill authorizes is owned and operated by Hutchison Whampoa, a Chinese company with extensive ties to Beijing.

This program, one of the subjects due for examination this week in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, could turn out to be far larger than the Bahamian screening program reported in the media late last week. It would be quite ironic if, in a rush to alleviate Dubai worries, we end up handing cargo-screening to a company which the CIA once worried “could provide a conduit for illegal shipments of technology or prohibited items from the West to the [People’s Republic of China], or facilitate the movement of arms and other prohibited items into the Americas,” as the AP reported last week.

Thankfully, Rep Duncan Hunter’s “National Defense and Critical Infrastructure Protection Act,” a blatantly protectionist bill which would bar non-U.S. entities from even passive presence in U.S. ports, seems to be losing steam. Except for the Shelby proposals, these bills should be taken back to the drawing board.

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