Monday, June 27, 2005

Quote of the Day

Today's International Herald Tribune has a fun article about the mythical Polish plumber, of whom the French are so petrified. The piece focuses on the newfound fame enjoyed by Piotr Adamski, a model who is pictured as a studly plumber inviting the French to come join him for a fun time in Poland.

Included in the story is a quote from Nobel Prize-winner Lech Walesa:

Adamski has become such an overnight sensation that even Poland's former president, Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity labor movement, offered him advice for his Paris trip.

"I suggest that he ask the French why the heck for so many years they encouraged Poles to build capitalism when as it turns out they are Communists themselves," Walesa, an electrician by trade, said in an interview published Friday in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Conference Fatigue

So I'm taking part in something called a Blogger's Alley, here in Brussels at a conference on innovation and patents. Yes, for one day, I'm acting like a real blogger, but don't worry, I'm not totally geeking out.

And before I get started, perhaps I could call for some kind of moratorium on conferences in Brussels? Jeez there are about 10 of them a day on one issue or another. A man can only drink so much orange juice from a wine glass.

Anyway, the current speaker is named Paul Harvey, he designs MRI systems. He is very smart. He has more than 20 patents to his name, for advances that have saved lives and generated wealth not only for him but for lots of other people. Not surprisingly, he isn't too keen on just giving away his knowledge for free.

He's impressive. But unfortunately he isn't this Paul Harvey...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

Roll Call newspaper, where I worked from 1989 to 2000, has just published a special issue commemorating its 50th anniversary. As the former Heard on the Hill columnist for the paper, I was asked to write a little article on my experiences there. In case you're interested, here it is:

The 1990s were a time of dramatic upheaval in the institution of Congress and, as Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill columnist for most of that decade, I like to think I played at least some small role on the Capitol stage. So, after all these years and from my new home on a different continent, I feel I can finally say this: Sorry!

I’m kidding, mostly, but not about the transition part. When I started writing HOH, in April 1990, Congress was still populated with plenty of endearingly crusty characters from the Mesozoic era of American politics, when — if we’re to believe the quaint legend — Democrats and Republicans got along. In our current era of vituperation and character assassination, this was what is now referred to nostalgically as the Good Old Days.

Members from both sides of the aisle would, after a long day of political bobbing and weaving, gather in some allegedly larger-than-life committee chairman’s office for bipartisan bourbon-and-branches and back-slapping — and we were all supposed to feel good about it. Who cared whether their deal-making was helping or hurting the public weal? Hell, who even knew? By the end of the decade we’d already had the “Contract with America,” the government shutdown, a slew of ethics scandals and the impeachment of a president. We saw the earliest sprouting of the Congressional Pod People who now seem to dominate the legislative branch.

I wrote HOH in a more innocent time, a time when one could make a name as a gossip columnist without frequent and cleverly worded references to sodomy or reliance on unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo — although it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Going through back issues of Roll Call to write this article has reminded me of what it was like to grow up, professionally speaking, on Capitol Hill. I was there from the age of 21 to 35, and I’ve probably never had more fun in a job or had better colleagues than when I worked at Roll Call.

Where else could we churn out such headlines as “Staffer Fired, Then Murdered” or “Furnishings Chief Quits Abruptly” or, in our version of Dewey Defeats Truman, from the 1991 leadership battle between Reps. David Bonior and Steny Hoyer, “Whip Contest Too Close to Call” (Bonior won by 51 votes)? We used to joke that the ultimate Roll Call headline would be, “Capitol Destroyed by Bomb; Massive Subcommittee Shuffle Ahead.” As I say, it was a more innocent time.

Reading the old papers also brings back memories of a lot of nice folks I dealt with, sources who I’m sure wouldn’t mind being identified at this late date. Indulge my giving a shout out to a few of them: Dan Nichols, the unflappable and unfailingly helpful spokesman for the Capitol Police during the entire time I wrote HOH — if he had ever told me half of what he knows I would have a Pulitzer; Ari Fleischer, who long before he became a poker-faced White House press secretary was a plugged-in staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and fount of good HOH items (he once called to tell me his boss had flicked a cigarette butt into the wastebasket and nearly burned down the Senate, but I wasn’t allowed to name the boss or the way the fire started); John Edgell, who specialized in working for kooky Members like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and now sells Arnold Schwarzenegger dolls, and who is going to freak that I’ve outed him as a source; Donald Ritchie, of the Senate Historian’s Office, who was always happy to provide some background context or archaic anecdote; and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who always returned phone calls, even if he spoke so fast it was hard to get his quotes right.

There are dozens more, of course, and if I’ve left you out, I apologize (or, more likely, you’re welcome).

Then there were the less-than-helpful folks, the Pete Starks and Adam Clymers of the world, who despite their best efforts provided some juicy copy over the years. Their mean spirit and lack of any discernible sense of humor only prodded me to go after them more.

I sense from reading current issues of Roll Call that things have gotten ugly on Capitol Hill. Some lament this. But I’m not one to pine for the good ol’ boy days of the late Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) or then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). I don’t necessarily confuse bipartisan political tradition with effective legislating or healthy democracy.

In those days, when the fix was in, there was nothing to be done about it. At least now some blogger can raise a stink, generate a million fake e-mails, get Rush Limbaugh on the case and end up renaming an airport or something. Er, maybe I’ll take that bourbon-and-branch, after all.

Seriously, be thankful for what you’ve got: a semi-vigorous political discourse. I have been living for the last five years in Brussels, which is similar to Washington, D.C., in many ways except more people in Belgium speak English.

I’ve had some experience writing political gossip for a Brussels audience, in Entre Nous, European Voice newspaper’s version of HOH, and it just doesn’t compare. People here are too damned serious about advancing The European Project to bother with senses of humour (sorry, humor). Another problem: Nothing much happens in the EU. Nearly every news story starts with “plans are being put forward” or “a Green Paper is being drafted on the proposed Directive.” How it makes me long for former Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.).

Still, there are flashes of hope. One recent item in Entre Nous (which I no longer write) was headlined: “Catering Strike Lingers as Mystery Budgie is Found.”

Brussels may finally be catching Potomac Fever.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Rough Trade

European Voice has just published the profile I wrote of the new US trade representative, Rob Portman. I wrote it several weeks ago, before the Airbus-Boeing fight escalated...

Bush’s international actor

Rob Portman

Sometimes it seems like nothing much ever changes in transatlantic trade policy. The issues come and go and apparent victories are soon undone by endless appeals and counter-measures. Often, the wins and losses cancel each other out, creating a zero-sum game. The negotiations feed on themselves. The billable hours accumulate.

There’s the Boeing-Airbus fight, which feels like it has been going on since the days of the Wright Brothers and shows no signs of coming in for a landing. The battle over genetically modified foods appears to have no sell-by date. Even the banana war, which tripped up EU-US trade relations through most of the 1990s, is making an unwelcome comeback.

Everyone looks for something that will change the balance of power. In the world of trade negotiations, it can often be a personality that makes the difference. So there is sure to be close scrutiny in Europe of Washington’s new chief trade negotiator, Rob Portman.

A change of personality, apparently, is what is needed at the EU-US negotiating table. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson did not appear to share his predecessor Pascal Lamy’s affection for the previous USTR, Robert Zoellick. Over the last several years Lamy and Zoellick, who became jogging buddies in their days as G-7 sherpas, were two of a kind: workaholic technocrats who spoke the international language of policy wonkery. But Mandelson is a political animal and born spin-control artist. One of his conversations with the prickly Zoellick ended infamously in a phone receiver being slammed down.

The animosity between Mandelson and Zoellick may have been “blown out of proportion”, in the words of one Brussels lobbyist who argues that “trade policy is driven more by issues than by personalities”. But it certainly won’t hurt that Portman, as a fellow politico, is likely be a better counterpart to Mandy. Portman is by no means slick, but his resume includes a number of critical tools for the job: experience with international trade law, election to political office, a penchant for spin, and close relations with the White House.

More important than his personality or political background may be geography. Until his confirmation as US trade representative at the end of April, Portman was a congressman from Ohio – yes, the state that brought you the second term of George W. Bush. More specifically, he is a native of and represented Cincinnati, a city that is home to Chiquita, the major complainant in the banana case against the EU, as well as to consumer-products multinational Procter & Gamble. Throw in the fact that a factory in his district also produces General Electric aircraft engines, and you’ve got a man who has been more or less at the nexus of transatlantic trade relations over the last 15 years.

Still, don’t expect him to be a wind-up defender of local interests. Portman comes from the traditional pro-business, pro-free-trade wing of the Republican party, and has long argued against protectionist policies. But as a politician he will be acutely aware of the constituent-based, protectionist sentiments of his former colleagues in Congress. Like many European politicians, they worry about outsourcing of jobs and cheap importing of goods and services. They will continue to make life hard for transatlantic trade negotiators.

Reviews from this side of the Atlantic have been good, but it is still early days. Most promising was an appearance with Mandelson at an OECD meeting in Paris in mid-May, at which the two were all smiles. They also pledged to work together to breathe new life into stalled WTO negotiations. “He’s a good choice - an impressive guy and very close to Bush,” says an executive with one of the biggest European industrial companies. “He is a serious appointment and will be good for trade - especially in the Congress, in my opinion.” His nomination as USTR was also widely hailed in the US. where colleagues in Congress from both parties saluted his negotiating skills.

Portman had a stellar early career, working just after earning his law degree for the blue-chip Washington, D.C. firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, where he specialized in international trade. At the age of just 34, he went to work as a White House counsel in the first Bush administration. He eventually served in the key post of director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, making him the president’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

After Bush père lost his bid for a second term, Portman returned home to Ohio. He won his Congressional seat in a special election in 1993, his victory an early tremor before the Republican landslide in 1994. In that election, held halfway through Bill Clinton’s storm-tossed first term, Americans rebelled against the White House and sent a record number of conservative Republicans to Washington.

These new members of Congress owed their success in large part to the House Republican leader at the time, Newt Gingrich. A kind of GOP messiah, Gingrich crafted a national strategy behind which Republican candidates could march in lockstep: the ‘Contract With America’, which promised lower taxes and an end to ‘big government’. That huge influx of new GOP legislators included a disturbing number of hillbilly drones, retired sports stars, blow-dried Jesus freaks and other assorted pod-people – many of whom continue to serve in the institution (and are, in fact, now in key leadership positions).

But Portman quickly distinguished himself as bright light in a class full of dim bulbs, and his talents were rewarded. He won a coveted seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where all US tax legislation originates and where most key trade policies are set. (He also served on the panel’s trade subcommittee, a post that brought him to Europe on occasion, so he’s far from unknown in Brussels.)

Portman was briefly the subject of rumours that he would be chosen to replace Vice-President Dick Cheney as Bush’s running mate in the 2004 campaign. But this no doubt was mainly due to the fact that the Congressman had already carved out a successful career playing a vice-president in mock debates. In 2000, Portman helped Bush prepare for his debate performances by portraying Al Gore; the then-congressman also stood in for Democratic vice-presidential candidates Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004 Republican debate practice sessions.

More importantly, he provided key help in the campaigns themselves, and last year ran Bush’s crucial Ohio effort. This is the kind of service which does not go unrewarded. It’s safe to assume that Portman will have the president’s ear on trade policy and just about anything else.

Portman, who is married and has three children, is also a published author, but his first and only book does not deal with the worlds of politics and policy – or even what it was like to be Al Gore. Last year he co-wrote a book on the Shakers, an obscure 19th-century religious sect that made its home in Ohio. The Shakers were known for advocating religious tolerance, crafting simple yet beautiful wooden furniture, and shunning procreation. Not surprisingly, they didn’t last long (the furniture they made, however, is still highly prized). “I’ve been fascinated by the Shakers since I was a boy,” Portman said after writing the book, which is entitled Wisdom’s Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village. “It’s a story I thought needed to be told.”

Will much change under Portman, other than personality at the negotiating table? It isn’t likely to. “If you look at the people Portman had with him in Paris last week, it was the same people who were there with Zoellick,” says one Brussels trade-policy expert. “The people they’re dealing with in DG Trade are the same. The issues stay the same.”

So maybe it will be business as usual. Perhaps when things really get boring Portman can start imitating Bob Zoellick.