CUSTOMS INTERPRETATION UNDER FIRE

Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Customs Service is simply mistaken, members of the House Ways and Means Committee wrote the Bush administration Tuesday in the latest round of a dispute over whether sweaters from sub-Saharan Africa should be granted duty-free status.
The committee’s protest arises from Customs’ recent ruling that a shipment of lambswool sweaters from Mauritius didn’t qualify for trade benefits under legislation passed last year. Their reasoning: knit-to-shape panels from which the sweaters were made aren’t technically fabric. Only apparel sewn from fabric qualifies, the agency maintains.
“This interpretation is wrong,” wrote Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, Charles Rangel (N.Y.), and eight other lawmakers, in a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and acting Customs Commissioner Charles Winwood.
“Moreover, Customs’ interpretation clearly violates legislative intent,” the lawmakers argued, citing the purpose of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act is to stimulate garment production on the sub-continent by using fabric produced in the region or in the U.S.
“On this basis, a knit-to-shape panel must be treated as the equivalent of a piece of fabric for purposes of the law,” they wrote.
The letter continues: “Customs attempts to support its incorrect and counterproductive interpretation with the fact that specific provisions were included for knit-to-shape sweaters made of cashmere and certain merino yarns.” The lawmakers said they created the cashmere and merino provisions in order to exempt the products from a cap placed on other apparel.
O’Neill has already told the panel he plans to examine the Customs ruling, but he thus far has made no other comment.