Ohio Lawmakers Take on China

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Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown rounded up all but one freshmen in the Senate Democratic caucus to sign a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid. The letter accuses China of manipulating its currency, abusing workers’ rights, and exporting unsafe products. It urges Reid to take swift action. The letter came out of months of formal meetings and informal chats among the first-term Senators. But Brown says the idea wasn’t a hard sell.

“All of us, I think, are specially tuned in to what wrong-headed trade policy means for the middle class. We are in a position to speak with one loud and unified voice for the middle class and for a better trade policy.”

The Senators want legislation to tighten inspection on Chinese products and force China to raise its labor standards. They also pledge support for a Senate bill which would punish China unless it stops controlling its currency. A similar proposal is moving in the House. Ohio seventeenth District Democrat Tim Ryan is the principal author.

“If this hammer’s hanging around here over the communist government-China, they’ll think twice about, you know, manipulating their currency.”

It’s not a coincidence that Ohio lawmakers in both chambers have jumped to the forefront, says Senator Brown.

“My state has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing job! s. I don’t put all that at the feet of China, but I know that’s part o f it.”

Manufacturers are watching these trade bills closely. But their Washington representative-the National Association of Manufacturers remains neutral. It lobbies for multi-national conglomerates as well as family shops. Some of them are raking in billions of dollars doing business with China. Others are fighting for mere existence against an onslaught of cheap Chinese goods. Patricia Mears monitors trade policies for the Association. She says with a looming economic recession, butting heads with China may lead down an uncharted path.

“Do we do anything that could negatively impact the economy down the road, i.e. increase the cost of our imports into the United States? In the fragile state we are currently in, is this advisable?”

Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution says hardball policies against China won’t go far this year.

“Look, trade is not at the top of the economic agenda of the major members of Congress, so to get a bill through in an election year on an issue which is not at the top of the agenda is very difficult.”

But that doesn’t mean Senator Brown and Congressman Ryan aren’t getting anywhere. Three years ago, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had pushed tough actions against China. They threatened to spike tariffs on Chinese products, if Beijing did not boost its currency value.

“Frankly speaking, their proposal never had a chance of passing. It was designed to send a message to the Chinese government,” Bader said.

It seemed to work. China has nudged up its currency value about fifteen percent since then.

“It would be perfectly appropriate for Senators Schumer and Graham to say our approach has worked and we are proud and we are pleased.”

So if the Ohio lawmakers can get enough attention, it’s possible both their leadership and the Chinese government will listen.

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