Maryland v. The People's Republic of China
It began as an effort to protect the children of Maryland from unsafe toys. Now, thanks to a disgruntled Chinese government and WTO, Del. James Hubbard’s (D-Prince George's County) proposed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly on potentially harmful chemicals has entered the ranks of “barriers” to international trade.
As you may remember, last year saw a slew of recalled Chinese toys, which were found to contain dangerously high levels of lead. Hubbard, dissatisfied with the Bush administration’s response, proposed a bill that would allow Maryland to monitor its own toys. The bill, which will clear Maryland store shelves of dangerous toys, did more than raise international eyebrows. From a recent article in the Washington Post, here’s how it went down:
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative alerted the Chinese government, which sent a letter from Beijing to protest the bill as a barrier to trade. Lawmakers in Annapolis were unfazed and passed the bill, which takes effect next month.
Then came a four-page missive from the World Trade Organization's Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade -- in English and Chinese -- opposing another of Hubbard's bills, to ban a chemical compound called bisphenol A that is central to the plastics industry. Manufacturers in the United States and China use the compound in baby bottles and other products. With testimony on both sides, the bill did not pass out of a House committee.
The Chinese said there is "no specific scientific evidence" proving that products containing bisphenol A are hazardous to children.
Hubbard said he believes both complaints were prompted by lobbyists for the chemical industry, here in Washington.
"I truly feel the [chemical] industry and the toy industry are running to China and saying, 'You ought to oppose these bills, and if you don't you'll lose out on product sales in America,'" he said.
The WTO’s signature 'trade until proven deadly'
threat justification was successful, and the bill didn’t make it out of a House committee. In an interview on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday, Hubbard expressed his consternation: "This was a public health issue, not a trade issue."
In the past, international trade rules have stretched an intervening hand into state legislatures on a number of important issues, including health-related environmental regulations. Yet the WTO, not to mention Chinese government's attempts to preemptively intervene in a state's legislative process is taking their vested interest to another level.
Concerned that similar legislation would receive such undesired attention in Maine, the state's Citizen Trade Policy Commission issued a letter to the USTR which received this response. Hardly reassuring, their explanation is that the WTO notification system which "normally calls for us to notify proposed agency regulations" had "inadvertly included certain state legislative proposals." They assure it will not happen again in the future.
As states increasingly feel the yoke of international trade agreements in which they have had virtually no say, legislators from around the country are seeking new ways to work together to improve the process of state-federal consultation when it comes to trade policy-making.
Special thanks to Isaac Raisner for his contribution to this post.