Well, it's that time of year again. As we enter the final month of 2006, it is time to take stock of what we have accomplished during the past 12 months and also to peek ahead to what promises to be a very interesting 2007.
Trying to predict where things are headed in Washington, DC, however, is a little bit trickier due to the dramatically altered political landscape following the "thumpin'" Democrats gave Republicans during the recent midterm elections in the U.S. Congress. Not being ones to shy away from a challenge, however, we will give it a try. As such, this article will update readers on some of the key developments in the key policy matters being tracked by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry's Washington, DC office as well as offer some thoughts about how the newly configured Congress might impact these initiatives.
International trade has been a prominent feature on INDA's government affairs agenda for several years now because of the Bush Administration's decidedly ambitious trade agenda and our members' desire to explore new global markets and correct market access imbalances affecting our industry.
U.S. supporters of liberalized trade witnessed significant progress in 2006 including the launch of bilateral free trade negotiations with Korea and Malaysia and the successful conclusion of trade pacts with Peru and Colombia. Moreover, at the global level, it looks like Vietnam is poised to become the World Trade Organization's (WTO) 150th member in early 2007 and another major world economy, Russia, is finally beginning to move past some of the more significant obstacles that stood in the way of its membership in the global trade organization.
The movement forward, however, has been tempered by setbacks. The ongoing "Doha Round" of multilateral trade talks was suspended yet again this July because of disagreements in the agricultural trade negotiations. In addition, talks between the U.S. and Thailand have been put on indefinite hold because of political instability in the Southeast Asian nation. Adding to the overall uncertainty surrounding the U.S. trade agenda is the rapidly approaching expiration of Presidential Trade Promotion Authority in July 2007 and the growing belief that certain trading partners—most notably China—are flouting global trade rules to the detriment of the U.S. economy.
Upholstered Furniture and Mattress Flammability
The Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) ongoing efforts to develop flammability standards for upholstered furniture and mattresses remained a priority for INDA and members of its Furniture and Bedding Flammability Task Force in 2006. Happily, this spring yielded a significant development in one of these initiatives when, on March 15, the Commission published a final mandatory standard for mattresses intended to reduce the number of fires ignited by open flame sources. The final rule, which will allow for the use of barrier fabrics as a compliance option, is slated to go into effect July 1, 2007.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about CPSC's national flammability standard rulemaking for upholstered furniture, which is still in limbo. Although the semi-annual regulatory agenda released by the Commission this spring indicated major action was expected in August 2006, no such action has materialized to date. Complicating matters is the fact that CPSC Chairman Harold Stratton left the agency in July and, at present, the White House has made no mention of a possible replacement (this despite the fact that CPSC can only operate without the required quorum of three Commissioners until mid-January, 2007). Although the White House will likely appoint a replacement soon, Mr. Stratton's absence may have contributed to delays in the upholstered furniture rule.
EPA Wipes Proposal
Will 2007 be the year that we will, finally, celebrate a final rule on industrial wiping products from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? At this point, it is difficult to tell. What we do know is that EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response spent most of 2006 re-visiting the risk assessment report on which the proposed version of the rule was based. Within EPA, risk assessments are a critical component to any rulemaking effort and INDA, along with several other interested parties, was somewhat critical of the original risk assessment. Based on these concerns, in fact, the Agency unilaterally decided to take another look at its original work. The result, while frustratingly slow, may be a far better rule at the end of the tunnel. According to EPA staff, the revised risk assessment will be completed within the next few weeks, and public comment on the document will be requested early next year.
INDA's Congressional Outreach Initiative
INDA continues to make great strides in advancing its inaugural "Congressional Outreach" initiative, having met with 230 Congressional offices and having held four successful receptions for U.S. House of Representatives lawmakers since the program was first launched in January 2003. Moving forward, INDA will continue meeting with as many incumbent and freshman lawmakers as we can to raise awareness about our industry on Capitol Hill.
Although it seems like media coverage of the 2006 Congressional elections centers on expressions such as "political tsunami," "electoral earthquake," and "seismic shift," it is still an open question as to whether the new Congressional majority will make much of a difference when it comes to INDA's policy interests.
For instance, while some may interpret the recent election results as a mandate for dramatic changes in U.S. policy across the board, Democratic lawmakers are unlikely to forget that some of the most critical election contests were decided by the narrowest margin of votes. And, those hoping to put a Democrat in the White House come 2008 are also unlikely to forget the countless public opinion polls during the weeks and days leading up to the elections that repeatedly revealed that Americans are fed up with partisan politics and ideological extremism no matter from which end of the political spectrum it originates. These realities are likely to encourage Democrats to adopt a more centrist and conciliatory approach.
That is not to say that things on Capitol Hill are going to be business as usual come January when the 110th Congress takes office. There are, in fact, signs that the mood has already begun to shift. On November 13, for example, House Republicans failed an attempt to secure the two-thirds vote needed to pass legislation normalizing trade relations with Vietnam with limited debate, causing some to wonder whether it signaled the President's liberal trade agenda is going to encounter increased resistance in the Democratically-controlled Congress. Others cannot help but wonder if President Bush's decision to meet with the big three U.S. automakers in mid-November after repeatedly rebuffing them in the past means we can expect to see an increased focus on policies promoting the traditionally Democratic agenda item of U.S. manufacturing.
And beyond all of the "big ticket" items that will be likely be major parts of the Congressional agenda next year—Iraq, immigration, same sex marriage, etc.—the issues which are most important to our industry tend to be non-partisan. If there is any one area of concern, in fact, it is likely over international trade issues. Simply stated, it is impossible to predict how many of the newest faces on Capitol Hill will come down on issues of greatest importance to members of INDA's International Trade Advisory Board. Otherwise, however, INDA's biggest challenge in the year ahead will simply be to educate so many new Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate about the nonwovens industry and the role we play in the national economy.
So we can all most definitely look forward to an interesting, and potentially challenging 2007. For INDA members and others in the nonwovens industry, we wish everyone a very happy holiday season and encourage you contact us in Washington, DC if you become aware of matters that need to be addressed on behalf of our industry. It is very likely that we will need all the extra eyes and ears we can get once the 110th Congress convenes in January.