By  on June 1, 1994

WASHINGTON -- With the indictment Tuesday of House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D., Ill.) on 17 felony counts, one of the most prominent free traders in Congress ascends to lead the powerful committee.

Rep. Sam Gibbons (D., Fla.), 74, author of a bill to grant Caribbean Basin countries parity with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, is the ranking member behind Rostenkowski and will become the acting chairman of the committee.

Rep. Robert Matsui (D., Calif.), 52, the administration's point man during last year's NAFTA fight, is ranking Democrat on the Trade Subcommittee behind Gibbons and is expected to become acting chairman of that panel when Gibbons takes over the full committee.

Under House Democratic rules, however, the chairmanship of the subcommittee would be decided by the 24 Democrats on the full committee. Gibbons has said he would support Matsui as new Trade Subcommittee chairman.

The changes in leadership would be temporary while Rostenkowski fights federal charges that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government during a pattern of official corruption that exceeded 20 years.

Matsui -- who, like Gibbons, has built a reputation as a free trader -- is frequently in opposition on trade matters with House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.). This clash could open the door to another Democrat who shares Gephardt's more protectionist trade philosophy becoming chairman of the Trade Subcommittee.

Matsui, however, got a nod Tuesday from the panel Republicans. Philip Crane (R., Ill.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said in a statement that subcommittee Republicans expected to have a good working relationship with Matsui should he become chairman. A Gephardt spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Industry lobbyists and House staffers predict that Gibbons' elevation to chairman will escalate the importance of trade and give it a higher priority.

"He is such a strong free trade advocate and so steeply versed in trade, I see trade assuming an even more important role," said Robert Hall, vice president and government affairs counsel for the National Retail Federation. "This will be good news for GATT. It will be a real push for the treaty and this will do nothing but heighten that push."

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