This summer, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) took some heat during a two-day hearing on whether to maintain import duties on, appropriately, hot-rolled steel. Thanks to a large turnout by lawmakers, it was the most action the ITC had seen since its marathon hearing last fall on whether to continue duties on corrosion-resistant steel, which resulted in one of the longest single-day hearings in ITC history.
The hearing that began July 31 was special because 26 lawmakers—ranging from well-known Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) to lesser-known politicians like Alabama's Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.—appeared in support of the domestic industry. The hearing took place during one of the busiest weeks to date for the 110th Congress, underscoring the importance of the issue to lawmakers.
Seasoned trade lawyers said it was the largest contingent of lawmakers to appear before the ITC since the epic Section 201 hearings. But their testimony was repetitious, leaving some to wonder whether parading so many lawmakers might ultimately work against the domestic industry. Advocates for continuing the duty orders wondered whether having so many lawmakers speak was annoying the commissioners since they took up so much time.
The lawmakers that appeared told similar stories of families that had lost their jobs because of unfair trade. Almost all of them said Congress supported the U.S. steel industry because it believed that having a strong domestic steel industry is vital to national security. The lawmakers' testimony took more than three hours, and was capable of boring even the most fervent political junkie. The senators entered as quickly as they left, stopping only for photos with members of the United Steelworkers union, who were called in by union president Leo Gerard.
So how much weight does testimony from lawmakers have with the ITC?
"The truth is, no one knows," a trade attorney said. Appearing before the ITC is probably useful for members of Congress because it educates them about the trade remedy process, he said, but doesn't add a lot to the record of investigation. Some may even hurt their cause by testifying. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), a regular at ITC hearings involving steel, might be an example. He lectured the commission about how to do their jobs, spelling out to them exactly what information they should and should not consider.
"The Department of Commerce has already determined that dumped and subsidized trade is likely to recur if these orders are revoked, and now your legal responsibility is to determine whether or not that unfair trade is likely to materially injure this industry," he said. "It is not your responsibility to evaluate how well the steel industry is doing now compared to how it was doing a few years ago, nor to speculate as to how maintenance of the subject orders is likely to affect other industries." Rockefeller went on to list the legal standards of the commission, information that should be apparent to the commissioners, and noted that Capitol Hill considered the trade laws "a joke."
Although Rockefeller received many pats on the back from union members as he left the commission hearing, it is difficult to see how talking down to the commissioners, many of whom have years of experience, will help the domestic industry's cause, or how telling the commissioners that Congress doesn't respect the nation's trade laws, which the ITC has such a crucial role in shaping, will give weight to his testimony or that of any other lawmaker.
Still, the trade lawyer said that while some commissioners might be offended by being lectured, most are probably not swayed one way or another. "It probably doesn't hurt, and might help." He said the domestic industry should continue to beat on the door of members of the House and Senate Steel Caucus because their presence could only help the cause.
The value of the testimony depends on its content, he added. "(Rep.) Artur Davis (D., Ala.) was particularly good in his statements during the original hot-rolled case on Japan, Brazil and Russia. He gave a very eloquent statement on his own experience."
It is a more recent phenomenon to bring in representatives of individual states. During the corrosion-resistant hearing, for example, the governor of Oregon sent a representative to add his support to renewal of the duties; during the hot-rolled case, Alabama's Folsom showed up. It is even more unclear what impact those lawmakers have on the final outcome of cases, the lawyer said.