These issues were reconciled in late July and passage of PNTR seemed imminent, until House Republicans got nervous about looking soft on Russia in an election year. In response to the conflict in Syria, Russia’s involvement in supporting the Assad regime, and possibly Mitt Romney’s aggressive declaration that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” Republican leaders have demanded that congressional Democrats and President Obama show more public support for PNTR before they schedule a vote. That way no one will be able to bring up the vote during election campaigns.
The liberty of all Americans to trade across our border and the resulting economic opportunity should never depend on how news coverage of a foreign civil war will impact re-election campaigns. This is especially true in this case, because granting PNTR to Russia does not in any way signify acceptance of Russian foreign policy. On the contrary, the consequence would only be greater obligations on Russia to improve access for U.S. goods and services. Free trade is an essential component of economic freedom and is inherently anti-authoritarian. WTO membership makes the people of Russia freer; the ability to engage Russian policy at the WTO through dispute settlement empowers the U.S. government to help the Russian people escape harmful state intervention in their lives.
It’s impossible to know for certain when this Congress will vote on PNTR or if they’ll vote on it at all. Repealing Jackson-Vanik, accepting the benefits of Russia’s long-awaited WTO membership, and punishing human rights offenders are all uncontroversial proposals that most members of Congress are ready to support. A little bit of courage, and the realization that there is no downside to granting PNTR to Russia, ought to be enough to get this package through Congress.
Until then, every passing day represents wasted opportunities for economic growth and real job creation, something that might matter a good deal at the ballot box in November.
Bill Watson is a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.