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."Larry Martin, government relations director for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, said he welcomed Gibbons as new committee chairman and would welcome Matsui as chairman of the subcommittee as well. He described Matsui as a "consistent free trader, a very knowledgeable guy." Martin predicted, though, that this year's agenda would not be affected by the changes in leadership.

There has been concern expressed in many quarters that the committee's packed agenda of health care reform and consideration of implementing legislation for GATT will falter under Gibbons, who has been in Congress for 32 years and has never built a reputation as a conciliator or deal maker. But, in an interview last week, Gibbons said, "I believe it very deeply in my heart that there will be no delay."

A past foe of the U.S. textile industry's attempts to secure tighter import quotas, Gibbons is no longer viewed as the polar opposite of the industry on trade policy, an industry lobbyist said. Gibbons and ATMI worked toward passage of NAFTA, both back CBI parity legislation that has been included in GATT implementing legislation by the administration and favor market-opening initiatives pursued by the Clinton administration, the lobbyist said.

Gibbons has been a member of Congress for 32 years. He helped pass into law the Caribbean Basin Initiative in the early 1980s, and has been a consistent advocate of a value-added tax. Matsui has been in Congress for 16 years and has been a strong advocate of continuing China's most-favored-nation trade benefits. He was instrumental in delivering a 17-vote margin last year for NAFTA passage.

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