NOMINEES FOR LABOR, TRADE REP
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The storm over President-elect George W. Bush’s cabinet appointments subsided a bit Thursday with the seemingly less-controversial selection for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and someone to replace Bush’s original Labor secretary nominee.
For USTR, Bush tapped Robert Zoellick, a foreign policy guru and free trader who served in various roles in the Treasury and State Departments, as well as the White House, when Bush’s father was President.
During the Reagan administration, Zoellick also worked on the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement. In addition, Zoellick is given credit for helping to secure fast-track negotiating authority for the White House from Congress in 1991. That authority led to successful completion of NAFTA and its final passage.
Bush’s choice for Labor secretary is Elaine Chao, a former head of the United Way America and former Peace Corps director. Chao replaces Bush’s first pick for the post, conservative columnist Linda Chavez, who withdrew her name from consideration Wednesday after being mired in controversy over her harboring an undocumented immigrant in her home during the early Nineties.
Although a conservative, Chao, who’s married to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), drew less immediate fire from those that opposed Bush’s selection of Chavez, an outspoken critic of minimum wage and affirmative action.
Chao is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank generally on the opposite side of organized labor on issues like opposing workplace repetitive-motion stress injury standards and supporting trade agreements without labor standards.
“I really have no basis whatsoever to comment,” said Ann Hoffman, legislative director of the apparel union UNITE regarding the Chao announcement.
At a Washington news conference, Chao, a Taiwanese immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 8, told of her family’s struggles that taught her the lesson “every man and woman needs to be compensated for their work.”
If confirmed by the Senate, part of Chao’s responsibilities will be enforcing federal wage laws, including at garment contractors that have been targeted by the agency during the Clinton administration for underpaying workers.
In naming Zoellick, Bush said he plans to keep the trade representative’s post a cabinet-level position. The President-elect’s transition team had discussed reducing the USTR’s status to a more functionary job, but the business community protested such a move.
“He will report directly to me,” Bush said of Zoellick. “The reason the position needs to be a cabinet-level position is because of the importance of trade in the global economy.” For his part, Zoellick underscored the importance of the administration and Congress working together on trade policy. In recent years, Congress has been at odds over the direction of U.S. trade policy, including again granting the White House the negotiating authority it needs to complete a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which Bush has said is a priority.
Ron Sorini, who was the USTR’s chief textile negotiator during the first Bush administration, said Zoellick could prove key in coming to terms with the controversy over whether trade pacts should contain environmental and labor standards. The sticky issue is in the way of congressional consideration of fast-track authority.
“Trade has always had a political element to it, but I think it’s become more of a politically charged issue,” Sorini said.
Brad Figel, director of government relations for Nike in Washington, praised Zoellick for having “a very strong international sense and strong political acumen, which I think is particularly important as we move into the 107th Congress and the new administration.”
Jock Nash, the Washington counsel for the textile giant Milliken & Co., said it’s unclear how Zoellick will handle the issue of lowering textile and apparel tariffs when the World Trade Organization meets for another round of trade-liberalizing talks. U.S. textile and apparel tariffs are generally higher compared to other products. Nash said Milliken & Co. would oppose reduction of textile and apparel tariffs until foreign competitors do the same.