David Spooner had not lost his sense of humor, despite having spent the three prior days in exhaustive negotiations with Chinese trade officials in Washington.
“I’m a very patient person, but I think one of their negotiating strategies is to keep you up all night and wear you down,” joked Spooner, special textile negotiator for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.
Spooner’s upbeat nature stemmed from a belief that the talks had led the U.S. and China closer to an agreement on regulating surging imports of apparel and textiles. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to put the ball over the goal line, but I’d say we’re very close,” said Spooner in his speech at the summit.
Less than a week later, the two sides agreed to a three-year deal that restricts 34 types of apparel and textile imports valued at more than $5 billion annually. The deal allows for a 10 percent increase in apparel imports and a 12.5 percent rise in textiles next year, based on imports for the 12 months ending in December or, in some cases, October. This will be followed by 12.5 percent across-the-board growth in 2007 and increases of 15 to 16 percent in 2008, with some exceptions.
Having played a key role in hammering out the deal, Spooner was nominated this week by President Bush to become assistant secretary for import administration at the Commerce Department, a post that must be confirmed by the Senate.
Spooner is well aware of the impact trade policies have on the industry.
“No industry is more affected by trade, of course, than the retail and apparel industries,” said Spooner, who has held his current position since 2002. “It’s the most highly traded industrial good in the world. And unfortunately, it faces higher trade barriers, higher tariffs, a greater number of non-tariff barriers than any other industrial good.”
In regard to China, Spooner said the U.S. had an obligation to avail itself of the safeguards for which it fought when China agreed to them as part of its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
“We firmly believe that the safeguard was important to attaining Congressional approval of China’s entry into the WTO,” said Spooner. “When you see import increases like that and ignore the safeguard, it begins to erode your Congressional support for the trade agreements that you’re carrying up to the Hill.”
Difficult negotiations are an integral and ultimately beneficial process, according to Spooner. In fact, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is set up to broker disputes between government agencies.
“We’re officially part of the Executive Office of the President,” said Spooner. “We don’t sit in the West Wing. We sit in a building a block away that was the headquarters for the Union army during the Civil War.”
It’s perhaps a fitting setting for an organization that Spooner said devotes much of its time to handling interagency disputes. “The Commerce Department will often fight with the State Department over what we should do on a given trade issue,” said Spooner. “If we were housed outside of the White House, if we were a regular agency, we’d have a little less moral authority to be an arbiter.”
The result is a constant butting of heads. “It’s a healthy way to flesh out trade policy issues.”
Spooner characterized the upcoming round of Doha talks scheduled to take place in Hong Kong in December as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” and a top priority. At its heart is a belief that reducing trade barriers would benefit not just the U.S., but developing countries, as well. “The benefits are potentially tremendous,” said Spooner. “I always feel like we sell this very poorly. My office often spouts out statistics instead of translating into real-life experiences.”
However, the statistics are telling. According to Spooner, the average bound tariff, or the maximum tariff the U.S. can employ, is 3.6 percent, while the average tariff of other WTO members is 39 percent. Spooner cited a University of Michigan study that indicated the average family of four stood to gain $7,500 a year if trade barriers were eliminated. Several other studies have shown that a successful Doha round would bring 300 million to 500 million people out of poverty.
Spooner and the administration contend that developing countries conduct most of their trade regionally. High tariffs discourage trade between neighbors. “Developing countries often have the highest tariffs, far higher than us, and it’s our position that developing countries would benefit by lowering tariffs among themselves to foster trade among themselves,” said Spooner.