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David Spooner on Trade, Politics and Safeguards

David Spooner, one of the architects of the trade pact that laid out the scope of imports from China through the end of 2008, is no longer in the white-hot center of apparel and textiles politics, but still has a hand in trade and a soft spot for the...

WASHINGTON — David Spooner, one of the architects of the trade pact that laid out the scope of imports from China through the end of 2008, is no longer in the white-hot center of apparel and textiles politics, but still has a hand in trade and a soft spot for the sector.

Spooner, 36, became assistant secretary for import administration at the Commerce Department in December after a nearly four-year stint as special textile negotiator in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Dealing with the nuances of trade law is a natural for the Virginia native, who in an interview said he “thoroughly enjoyed” the rigors of law school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

After getting his law degree, Spooner wanted to do something vital and headed to Capitol Hill. He held several jobs there before managing Rep. Sue Myrick’s (R., N.C.) Washington office, a career move that netted Spooner what he described as some of his best career advice. It came from Dave Redmond, whom he was replacing in the position.

“He said, ‘Unless you want to be a political hack your whole life, keep your finger in at least one substantive issue that you’ll enjoy,’ and so for me, that was trade,” said Spooner.

He certainly had an impact on the apparel and textile world, helping to negotiate various trade pacts that caused their share of controversy, such as a bilateral trade pact with Vietnam and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, in addition to the import restraint pact with China.

Spooner left his post at USTR shortly after the China deal was signed in November. That agreement limits the imports of 34 types of apparel and textiles from China and, at least for now, has eliminated the stop-and-start of safeguard quotas.

Safeguards were a condition of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and allowed the U.S. to impose temporary restraints on imports when the market was being flooded. In practice, though, safeguards were unpredictable and made life difficult for importers. Safeguards are still allowed in the U.S.-China deal for categories not under quota, but the U.S. agreed to use “restraint” in applying them.

“The textile agreement is an example of how we can use our trade laws to solve difficult issues with China,” Spooner said. “Our willingness to use the safeguard made China interested in sitting down at the table and resolving the issue writ large.”

In his new role, Spooner oversees a staff of 365 and is primarily responsible for enforcing the antidumping and countervailing duty laws that are designed to protect domestic producers from unfair trading practices. The Office of Textiles & Apparel, which helps implement trade agreements, also reports to him.

That puts Spooner on the front lines of trade enforcement. Domestic textile producers complain, though, that the way the laws are written make it difficult to enforce them.

“There are some major problems in terms of the way the dumping and countervailing duty laws are structured,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “They relate basically to standing: You have to be the producer of a directly competitive or like product [to bring a case].”

That means, for example, that a fabric producer can’t bring a case to put duties on apparel goods that are being dumped.

Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said the high cost of bringing antidumping cases is also an impediment to dealing with underpriced competition.

“In Europe, the government does most of the work so that small and medium-sized companies can afford to actually utilize these procedures,” said Johnson. “Most of our members are small or medium-sized companies and most of them can’t afford to spend $1 million on a dumping case.”

Also, policy currently prevents countervailing duties, which combat undue subsidies in foreign countries, on nonmarket economies such as China.

The domestic industry would like to get better access to these trade remedies, but Spooner wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of that happening.