WASHINGTON — Tearing down seemingly impenetrable foreign trade barriers is no easy task, but that’s just what William Lash 3rd has been charged to do.
As Assistant Secretary of Commerce for market access and compliance at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Lash is tough-talking his way from India to Ghana, calling for countries to eliminate trade barriers such as repetitive and costly labeling requirements and estimated pricing, and urging countries to comply with international laws.
If that weren’t enough, Lash is also taking on the issue of transshipments. His office employs a variety of tactics to bring countries into compliance.
“[Commerce] Secretary [Donald] Evans said I’m the secretary in charge of hard messages, so I’ve got to show up and give them a hard message,” Lash said.
Lash’s stance has given embattled U.S. textile executives hope, although many remain skeptical and have low expectations. Although he fights on behalf of all industries, Lash has made textile- and apparel-market access a top priority given the Bush administration’s pledges to help the beleaguered sector.
Lash’s critics claim he is just paying lip service to compliance issues. They contend administrations come and go, repeatedly take up the market access mantra but rarely make progress.
Lash is determined to prove them wrong. A Harvard Law School graduate who also holds a degree in political science from Yale, Lash has had an extensive career in academia on international trade issues and also served as a legal analyst for all three major TV networks.
He is also a sharp dresser with an eye for fashion, according to colleagues, often donning flashy purple ties and shirts, but his demeanor belies it. It took his close friend, Carol Crawford, formerly a commissioner with the International Trade Commission, to coax him into taking the position.
“She said ‘Bill, if you don’t go in, you can’t complain anymore about trade policy,’ and I took her up on it,” Lash said.
In his position, Lash advises on the formulation and implementation of U.S. international economic policies and promote international trade, improve market access for U.S. industries overseas and monitor and enforce compliance with bilateral and multilateral agreements.
Crawford said Lash — a free trader and self-proclaimed “card-carrying Republican and old-style Federalist” — is well suited for the job.
“He understands the economic theories that underlie trade relations, particularly the economic theories and practices underlying free trade versus protected markets,” said Crawford. “At the same time, he is understanding of the political reality.”
She said that the bottom line when you take such a position is “your own personal views take a back seat to the position the administration is taking in any area.”
“His focus is on the barriers in other countries that impede the ability of American producers to sell in other markets,” Crawford said. “That is absolutely consistent with his views.”
Lash has been on the job for a year, and, to the surprise of many, has made some progress on behalf of textile companies.
On top of his duties as Assistant Secretary at Commerce, Lash is also charged with carrying out the mandate of the Textile Working Group, the Bush administration’s inter-agency task force created to help the faltering domestic textile industry. He heads the task force’s compliance subgroup, which has similar objectives as his role at Commerce but focuses specifically on textiles and apparel.
The Textile Working Group stems from promises the Bush administration made to Southern lawmakers to secure their votes on trade promotion authority. Those lawmakers pressed the Bush administration to do a better job at cracking down on imports that circumvent quotas and tariffs and to negotiate trade deals with more of an eye toward opening foreign markets to U.S. textile exports.
No one expects Lash to tear down, overnight, the complex barriers that have existed in some countries for decades.
India, which tops Lash’s priority list, is the second most populous country in the world and has kept a large portion of its market closed to foreign imports for over 50 years, according to U.S. textile manufacturers. U.S. textile and apparel exports to India totaled $23.2 million in 2001, while imports from India to the U.S. were $2.6 billion last year.
“You have 62 cabinet-level ministries in India,” said Lash. “Some of these countries have incredible bureaucracies, and you have to be sure you are talking to the right minister and find out his purview.”
Lash cited a recent concession from India to drop an environmental dye test requirement for certain shipments of U.S. carpet tiles as progress on the TPA pledges.
His critics, many of whom will only speak on condition of anonymity, say that isn’t enough.
“It’s only a small step,” said one textile industry representative. “It does not open the Indian market,, and I hope that is not the kind of thing they are trumpeting because it means very little.”
The American Textile Manufacturers Institute claims it will take strong actions, such as removing India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, and withholding quota growth on growth rates, in order to effect real change.
“India is a priority because there are so many trade violations, from labeling to how they apply their tariffs,” said Lash. “They have not been a very forthcoming trading partner.”
So he has set an agenda to meet with his Indian counterparts three times a year to tackle some of the burdensome requirements.
“It is a zero-tolerance policy,” he said. “We increased the heat in the meetings, and something that would have taken two years in the past is now resolved in two weeks.”
He bases his approach on the idea that every country has a point of leverage. “You have to find the pressure points,” he said.
Lash has also vowed to continue his trips to southern textile states where he collects individual companies’ complaints and addresses them on his trips.
“I’m a lawyer,” he said. “There is nothing like having real evidence.”
His personal involvement in every issue also gives some assurances to the domestic industry, which has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past decade.
“If I get a commitment in India, I call my office and they call industry representatives or textile executives directly,’ Lash said.
To that end, he has also increased resources for processing cases.
“I keep track of every complaint, and everything is set up so nothing falls through the cracks,” Lash said.
One of the industry’s biggest concerns is circumvention of quotas via transshipments. Current trade rules limit the amount of textile and apparel goods each country can ship to the U.S. Some countries exceed their limits by shipping their textiles through Singapore, for example, rather than directly from their own country, attempting to mislead trade officials about their origin.
Lash said he achieved some results in meetings with the Singaporeans on transshipments. Earlier this year, he traveled to Singapore with U.S. Customs officials and succeeded in convincing the Singaporean customs officials to allow U.S. Customs officials in to collect more information on how Singapore monitors cargo containers.
The U.S. is currently negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement with Singapore, which Lash said had given him more leverage in discussing the issue of transshipments.
“They know the specter of transshipments is not going to help their chances in getting an FTA,” he said. “If you can cooperate on weapons of mass destruction [as Singapore has], you can do a fair job of making sure sweaters, jeans and T-shirts [from other countries] don’t slip through.”
But Lash won’t stop there. He has been to 35 countries in the past year and is currently in Malaysia discussing transshipment problems.
In September and October, he plans to travel to Mexico to pressure customs officials there to stop estimating prices on U.S exports and start listing actual prices on things like apparel. U.S. companies are forced to pay higher duties on apparel and textiles when Mexican officials use price estimates that are higher than the actual price of a garment or item.
Many textile-industry executives and trade experts give Lash high marks for his efforts, though they are still wary.
“He’s a real go-getter on individual problems,” said Cass Johnson, associate vice president of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute. “When a problem is brought to his attention he is very aggressive.”
Even some of the biggest critics of U.S. trade policy give Lash some credit.
George Shuster, president of Rhode Island textile printer Cranston Print Works and co-chair of the American Trade Action Committee, a new textile-lobbying concern, recently sent a letter to Lash commending him on his efforts.
“Bill Lash went out to tell the truth for a change,” said Shuster. “He went to India and told them they needed to open up because they are far more closed than we are and it’s about time America started saying that.”
If Cranston tried to sell its printed textiles in India, tariffs ranging from 40 to 80 percent and non-tariff barriers would make it impossible, Shuster said. He said Lash has a Herculean task before him.
“Here is a guy who says I’m coming along with a bulldozer to move a mountain,” Shuster said. “He’s got a lot of work to do and many mountains to move, but he has to begin someplace and that is to be applauded.”