NDN Blog

Holds, delays on Cabinet picks hurting American businesses

Below the entire op-ed published in The Hill, following my earlier post on the economic dangers of holding back key Administration appointments.  Holding up these key appointments is not only a danger to our economy, but to our very ability to effectively conduct foreign policy, particularly in the Latin America region. This issue has seen increasing concern and gained significant traction in the media - and deservedly so. Andres Oppenheimer called "Blocking Obama's Latin nominees irresponsible," in the Miami Herald last week, as Latin America is the only State Department geographic regional office without an administration appointee in place. Following the publication of my op-ed, we saw Ruth Marcus write in the Washington Post about an even broader sphere of nominations that are currently stalled.  


Holds, delays on Cabinet picks hurting American businesses

By Nelson W. Cunningham - 10/06/09 03:45 PM ET 

You may never have heard of the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, or the Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs. You may have vaguely assumed there was a Deputy United States Trade Representative, and an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and an ambassador to Brazil, but never thought much of them or what they do.

But ask American CEOs and business leaders who they turn to in Washington for help getting a fair shake in foreign markets or untying global trade knots, and you will learn that these are the very officials they rely on. Yet today, when every export dollar and trade-supported job is essential to America’s economic recovery, these key positions sit empty. And, surprisingly, these five seats are empty because of stalls and behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Senate Republicans — usually key allies of U.S. business.

In each case, the names went up months ago. The nominees have strong credentials and many have demonstrated strong bipartisan support. The reasons for the holds and delays vary. But even if the blocking actions are unrelated, collectively they deny American businesses their most effective overseas advocates.

• Miriam Sapiro, who was unanimously approved by the Finance Committee in July to be Deputy United States Trade Representative with responsibility for trade agreements and enforcement with Europe and the Americas (including NAFTA), has a one-man hold by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) over a Canadian tobacco bill.

• Arturo Valenzuela, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere, was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July, but Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has a one-man hold on Valenzuela as a protest against the administration’s Honduras policy.

• Thomas Shannon, nominee for ambassador to Brazil, is also being blocked by Sen. DeMint over Honduras. Shannon is hardly political, but is a career foreign service officer who was President Bush’s top official for Latin America at the NSC and then the State Department. 

• Francisco Sanchez, nominated in April to be Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, responsible for advancing U.S. export and trade opportunities around the world. Republican staff under Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on the Finance Committee have repeatedly delayed a hearing. 

• Lael Brainard, nominated in March to be Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, is also being held up by the Republican staff on the Finance Committee. With an empty chair in this powerful position — it was previously held by future Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers — our ability to coordinate a response to the financial crisis is hampered at a time when we can’t afford it.

Who is hurt by these holds and staff delays? Certainly the president, who is facing the worst economic crisis in 50 years, a stalled trade agenda, and economic and political turmoil in many parts of Latin America, including the hot-button crisis in Honduras.

But U.S. businesses are also hurt. When American companies find themselves in commercial or trade disputes abroad, or face unfair competition from foreign companies or discriminatory practices from regulators, they turn directly to the roster above. With all these chairs empty, U.S. businesses with problems abroad find themselves facing a classic Goldilocks problem — the Cabinet secretaries above are too big (and too busy), and the officials below are too small to have an impact at the right levels.

Moreover, the international economic issues of greatest interest to U.S. businesses are precisely the ones that are being hampered by these vacancies: balanced and coordinated growth out of the Great Recession, promotion of job-generating U.S. exports, delayed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, barriers into Brazil’s huge market, trade tensions with Canada (our largest trading partner) and security and border issues with Mexico (our second-largest), among many others.

And while all U.S. business interests overseas are affected by these vacancies, it is our business and political interests in the Americas that are being hit most directly, because of the responsibilities and expertise of the five nominees. Predictably, this lamentable situation is renewing cries from our neighbors that even under a promising new president, they continue to be neglected. And as importantly, our ability to help shape political and economic events in our hemisphere to advance U.S. interests is suffering greatly. Who wins when we can’t act? Our foreign competitors; not just foreign companies, but Hugo Chavez and his anti-democratic allies.

All this is not to cast blame on the United States Senate, which has a constitutional duty to provide “advice and consent” on presidential nominations (though it may cause one to question the tradition that permits a single senator to put an indefinite hold on a nominee). Nor is it to cast blame solely on Republican members or staff. Democratic senators and their  staffs used these same parliamentary maneuvers under Republican presidents.

But it is to say that those who engage in those tactics now — at a time of global economic crisis and with growing financial, trade and political frictions in our own hemisphere — should be reminded of the harm done to important U.S. interests. In the days after 9/11, the Democratically-controlled Senate moved swiftly to confirm the U.N. ambassador and other stalled security-related posts. Today’s circumstances are not the same by any means, but as we confront the worst economic crisis in over 50 years, these are surely no ordinary times.

The time has come for the Senate to carry out its constitutional duty and to end the delays on these five key commerce and trade nominations. American business deserves an A Team by its side.

Cunningham is managing partner of McLarty Associates, which advises U.S. and multinational businesses on their international strategies. He was a Democratic White House and Senate aide.



The A Team for American Business Waits As the Down Economy Keeps Going

“U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade,” “Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs,” “Deputy United States Trade Representative,” “Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs,” “U.S. Ambassador to Brazil”…while these positions may sometimes go under the radar of our 24 hour media cycle, American CEOs and business leaders turn to the individuals in these posts in Washington for help getting a fair shake in foreign markets or untying global trade knots. 

Yet today, when every export dollar and trade-supported job is essential to America’s economic recovery, these key positions sit empty.  And, surprisingly, these five seats are empty because of stalls and behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Senate Republicans – usually key allies of U.S. business.  In each case, the names went up months ago.  The nominees – people like Miriam Shapiro, Arturo Valenzuela, Thomas Shannon, Frank Sanchez, and Lael Brainard - have strong credentials and many have demonstrated strong bipartisan support.  

The reasons for the holds and delays vary.  But even if the blocking actions are unrelated, collectively they deny American businesses their most effective overseas advocates at a most critical time. 

Who is hurt by these holds and staff delays?  Certainly the president, facing economic and political turmoil in many parts of Latin America, including the hot-button crisis in Honduras; but all Americans and American businesses are hurt as we find ourselves in the midst of a major economic crisis.  Moreover, there is no one to hold up the fort and defend U.S. businesses as they face discriminatory practices, trade disputes, and other international challenges that hurt them – and their employees – here at home. 

This post is limited to introducing this topic; stay tuned as I discuss the political background and implications of this nominations process in a series of opinion pieces.  

Flu crisis brought U.S., Mexico together

This was originally published as an op-ed in the June 7 Houston Chronicle.

Presidential summits have a well-deserved reputation for being much talk and much less action. President Barack Obama’s April 16 summit in Mexico City with that country’s president, Felipe Calderon, certainly had its share of high-flown, friendly sounding rhetoric.

“Today … we have confirmed the determination of both governments to consolidate the very, very close contacts and links that join and bring together Mexico and the United States,” President Calderon offered. “I see this visit … as an opportunity to launch a new era of cooperation and partnership between our two countries,” President Obama responded.

And then, just seven days later, that rhetoric was put to a real test. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican citizens were thought to be sick with a new epidemic flu, and dozens or even hundreds were thought to be already dead. The disease seemed to have almost immediately spread to the United States — including at least one member of President Obama’s traveling party in Mexico. Within days, Mexico City was effectively shut down and newspapers in both countries — and around the world — blared the possible arrival of a major new pandemic influenza with the potential to kill millions around the world.

And in the face of mounting hysteria, the response of both Mexico and the United States was an almost perfect display of the cooperation and partnership the presidents had loftily promised.

As the H1N1 virus broke out, some countries hastily canceled flights to Mexico and some halted trade. Not the United States. When some in this country called for shutting the border, President Obama forcefully rejected the idea and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called it “pointless.” This decision not only made practical sense — since the virus had already jumped to the United States, closing the border would have done nothing more than wreak economic havoc on both economies — but the symbolism carried great weight in Mexico. After all, just a year ago the United States was talking about building a wall between the countries. All three Mexican political parties, in a rare demonstration of agreement, applauded the Obama administration’s response.

Mexico did its part to act responsibly. Rather than hiding its problem or refusing to accept outside help out of a misplaced sense of “dignidad,” or the fear of exposing holes in its public health system, Mexico did not hesitate to immediately ask the United States for material support. The Mexican authorities worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and their Canadian counterparts, sending them suspected samples for testing that went beyond Mexico’s capabilities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the United States would send 400,000 regimens of antivirals to Mexico. Dr. Richard Besser of the CDC reported that 34 CDC staff were in the field in five locations in Mexico. The CDC helped Mexico build a lab capability to do diagnosis and confirmation of the H1N1 virus in Mexico itself — a major step that allowed faster confirmation and response, and a shorter path to identifying risk factors.

In short, officials in both countries cooperated closely without the crippling lack of trust that has frustrated our joint efforts in the past, and that we still find to an extent in law enforcement and narcotics matters.

Now that the immediate threat of a killer pandemic has receded (the CDC recently dropped the advisory against unnecessary travel to Mexico, though a recent death and more infections and school closings in New York and elsewhere suggest the danger is not past), it is possible to look back on these events of the past month and see true signs of a new, stable and confident relationship between the United States and Mexico.

In fairness, of course, Obama and Calderon did not wave a wand and create this new relationship. They have benefited from nearly 20 years of close cooperation — from Bush 41 and Carlos Salinas to Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo, and then to Bush 43 and Vicente Fox — that started with the negotiation of NAFTA. Setting aside the lingering public unease over NAFTA’s economic impact, it’s plain that NAFTA did one thing very well: It helped cement a mindset of shared responsibility and institutional frameworks that promote open exchanges between our governments. Notably, of course, President Obama is no longer talking of renegotiating NAFTA.

Presidents Obama and Calderon are both mature, thoughtful leaders, and they have fully embraced this 20-year evolution and may yet bring it to a new level — truly a “new era of cooperation and partnership.” How they and their governments handled the brief but intense H1N1 public hysteria tells us a lot about how we can expect them to develop their own personal relationship, and that of our countries, in the years ahead.

Next up, perhaps, is an issue that touches deep emotional chords in both nations: immigration, and the fate of the millions of Mexican “illegals” living in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform is an urgent political need; but maneuvering through the political backlash that progress will unleash will require the skilled management and cooperation we showed during the H1N1 scare.

In August, the three leaders of North America — Mexico, Canada, United States — will meet in what has now become a once-yearly North American Summit. President Obama deserves credit for seeing the value of these meetings, which started during the time of his predecessor George Bush. The flu tested our relationships — and found them strong. Now, on to new challenges.

Hearing 'Friend' in Trinidad

This was originally published as an op-ed in the April 22nd Chicago Tribune.

How does Hugo Chavez say "amigo," at least when he's talking to Barack Obama?

He says "friend." As in "I want to be your friend." In English. True, as he "friended" President Barack Obama at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas last weekend in Trinidad, he handed him a book about 500 years of neo-colonialist exploitation of Latin America by Europe and the United States. But the gesture was clear, as was the broad grin on Chavez's face as he shook Obama's hand on the summit's first day. So was Chavez's announcement that he would send a new ambassador to Washington, seven months after pulling out his last envoy in the waning days of the Bush administration.

And Chavez was hardly the only "anti-American" leader to soften his stance against the U.S. Evo Morales of Bolivia, who had announced he would boycott the summit, came after all. He also was caught on camera shaking Obama's hand. And, of course, Cuba's Raul Castro announced he was prepared "to discuss everything" with the new administration—"human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners—everything."

In a trip that began in Mexico City and concluded in Trinidad, Obama showed that he has indeed found the "reset button" for the Americas.

To be sure, there was plenty of criticism at the summit of U.S. policies. But after years of often unnecessary contentiousness, the ability to establish a dialogue across-the-board in Latin America is a huge step forward, as is America's willingness to acknowledge a shared responsibility for common ills.

Candidate Obama promised a year ago in Miami that as president he would bring about a new relationship with Latin America. That promise—conveniently delivered in a majority-Latino city in a battleground state—was met with skepticism. After all, the last president had promised the same thing while campaigning in the same city, and many in the region had found themselves sorely disappointed. Moreover, with the host of domestic and international problems facing the new administration, how much attention could the White House really be expected to pay to Latin America?

But in the past month, the administration has showed it can walk and chew gum simultaneously. In early April, even as much of the administration focused on the financial crisis and the G-20, European and NATO summits, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico and acknowledged that on two frontline issues for Mexico, guns and drugs, the U.S. shared complicity and responsibility. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also traveled to Mexico to reinforce that message. And Vice President Joseph Biden was dispatched to Chile to attend a leaders' summit and to Costa Rica to meet with Central American presidents.

For his own part, Obama invited Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil to Washington to his first bilateral meetings. Finally, before embarking for Mexico and Trinidad, Obama announced a modest but symbolically powerful softening of travel and financial restrictions with Cuba.

Viewed together, these steps illuminate a carefully thought-out and sustained plan of U.S. engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. Obviously, Obama and his advisers did not view the Summit of the Americas as a check-the-box mandatory appearance. Rather, they used it to anchor a monthlong orchestrated diplomatic campaign to set new benchmarks for the region that are based on mutual respect, a shared responsibility for illegal narcotics and violence and a desire to get beyond old debates of the left versus the right.

Now comes the hard part. How to turn rhetoric into action along the troubled border with Mexico. How to restore strained relations with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador—without backing down on key U.S. priorities such as respect for rule of law, investment security, and in the case of Venezuela, democratic principles. How to move forward on liberalized trade. And how to proceed with some kind of dialogue with Cuba that does not dissolve into backlash, as Gerald Ford's and Bill Clinton's prior efforts did.

Despite the challenges ahead, it certainly was refreshing to end a Summit of the Americas without rallies and bonfires ranged against the American president and with the word "friend" ringing in our ears.

Nelson Cunningham is the Chair of NDN's Latin America Policy Initiative. He advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign on Latin America and served on his transition team. Cunningham also was special adviser to President Bill Clinton for Western Hemisphere affairs

Syndicate content