WASHINGTON — Don Foote has been the government’s consummate numbers man, institutional memory and keeper of the facts for nearly 30 years.
This story first appeared in the November 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
His career, which spans eight administrations, came to an abrupt halt last month, when Foote announced he was leaving his position as director of the agreements division at the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel, to take care of his elderly mother.
In many respects, Foote’s career paralleled the history of the textile and apparel import control program, which his office has administered since its inception. At the end of 2004, the role of the office is expected to diminish greatly as all quotas on textiles and apparel are lifted under a World Trade Organization mandate.
But Foote won’t be there to witness what many textile industry veterans claim is a windfall for China and a death knell for the domestic textile manufacturing base. To a man charged with protecting the domestic apparel and textile industry from “too many imports,” the phaseout of quotas controlling those imports ran counter to his mission.
“The idea is we are in the business of making sure, in my view of the mission, the textile and apparel industries have time to adjust to the consistent competition from the outside world in imports,” Foote said. “The purpose of the program is to prevent market disruption and to prevent overwhelming import growth from destroying these industries too prematurely.”
Over the years, Foote has refused to discuss policy publicly or predict the future of global commerce and the domestic textile industry. However, that all changed at 5:00 p.m. — and not a minute before — on Halloween night when Foote left his cramped office at Commerce, turned in his keys, hung up his civil service hat, crossed into the private sector and broke his silence.
When he joined the Commerce Department in 1965 under then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, imports of apparel and textiles stood at 1.7 billion square meters equivalent. Today, they stand at 41.1 billion SME for the year ended August.
Foote didn’t join OTEXA, the administrative arm of the multi-agency Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements, until 1974.
During his tenure, he advised in the negotiation and renegotiation of at least 1,000 textile bilateral agreements with countries around the world. He counts among his major achievements, the “White Paper” talks in 1979, in which he assisted in renegotiating existing bilateral agreements and limiting import growth with the three major suppliers at the time, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, in response to an outcry from the domestic textile industry, which claimed it was being pummeled by surges in imports from the three countries.
He said the other major accomplishment was the renegotiation of China’s bilateral textile agreement in 1997, which greatly expanded the apparel and textile products covered by quotas that were eventually rolled over into the WTO upon China’s entry.
Foote advised lead textile negotiators during the negotiations and created the tables and proposals used to negotiate quota levels and achieve U.S. goals. It was a tough balancing act, and it was often up to Foote to create a proposal with quota limits and growth rates that was acceptable to the domestic industry, as well as to the country with which the U.S. was negotiating. Later, he also had to balance the interests of importers.
In the mid-Eighties, U.S. apparel manufacturers and retailers began to shift production offshore in a quest for lower labor costs, and imports started to grow substantially. As the importing base in the U.S. grew, importers began lobbying to minimize and eliminate quota restraints.
Administrations and lawmakers have grappled with striking a balance between importing interests and the domestic textile industry ever since. One importer veteran who has worked with Foote for years claimed Foote saw himself as the protector of the domestic textile industry, although he was not hostile to importers.
“Sometimes I would have disagreed with where he put his emphasis, but at least he talked to people,” said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “He knew what to emphasize [in particular the monthly import data] in a way that supported what he saw as his position to protect the industry.”
Augustine Tantillo, Washington coordinator for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, who at one time served in the government as Foote’s superior in his position as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for textiles, apparel and consumer goods, said Foote’s mission was to administer the import control program.
“Don took seriously the fact that the decision he made affected hundreds of thousands of workers,” said Tantillo. “For that reason, he was enormously conscious of ensuring the program was administered correctly.”
Charles Bremer, vice president of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, said Foote was “Horatio at the bridge.”
“There were always people trying to abrogate responsibilities and get out of obligations in agreements and he would say you can’t do it,” said Bremer. “You couldn’t snooker Don Foote.”
Foote does not deny that his mission was to administer the import control program in a way that would give domestic manufacturers time to adjust.
“We were not supposed to shut off the flow of imports,” Foote said. “We were supposed to limit the flow of imports so the industry could adjust and survive.”
But the task has proven to be elusive. The beleaguered textile industry has had a difficult time “adjusting” to the onslaught of imports. During his tenure, the U.S. domestic apparel and textile manufacturing base has shrunk dramatically from over 2 million in the 1970s to a combined employment today of 729,000, he said.
“Jobs have decreased dramatically given the massive growth in imports by my measure,” Foote said.
Manufacturing losses have become a political hot potato for the Bush administration, which is currently considering a request from a coalition of textile and fiber groups to impose quotas on textile and apparel imports from China under a safeguard action.
Foote has stayed out of the fray and on the sidelines during the heated debates, but he set that policy aside when he became a private citizen.
According to Foote: “China will dominate the textile and apparel picture and push out virtually everyone,” if the current historical import trends continue, the phaseout of quotas on apparel and textiles stays on track and no other action takes place.
Foote said China has already proven it can dominate apparel and textile trade in a quota-free environment based on the surges in imports over the past year in categories where quotas were removed. He also concurred with the domestic industry’s prediction that China will take over 70 percent of the U.S. apparel and textile import market in a few short years if the trade is not restrained.
If China does assume such power, “the textile industry is doomed,” said Foote.
That position would rankle importers who claim the textile industry’s prolonged downturn is due to its failure to restructure and compete globally and cannot be attributable to imports from China.
Perhaps Foote’s philosophy at 62 has helped him weather the storm and accept the successes and disappointments. He moved from being a young idealist who served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala to being a realist who learned “you don’t have control over what you think you have.”
“You understand what you can do and what you can’t do,” he said. “You have to be a realist.”