Joe Nocera: How Not to Pass a Bill

August 6th, 2012

How Not to Pass a Bill

August 6, 2012


Among the many things the House never got around to doing before shutting down for the summer was holding a vote on a bill that would have granted permanent normal trade relations to Russia. 

Please don’t turn the page.

Yes, compared with its inability to pass a farm bill, this may sound like small potatoes. But it is a near-perfect illustration of the way the House Republican leadership has largely abdicated its responsibility to get useful things done — as opposed to, say, conducting votes to repeal Obamacare a few dozen times.

There wasn’t much controversy over the Russia bill. Business supported it because American companies could then take advantage of Russia’s imminent entry into the World Trade Organization. It would have required repealing the old Jackson-Vanik amendment, which links trade to the emigration of Russian Jews. But that’s been a nonissue for decades. The Senate was lined up to pass the bill quickly once the House acted.

Many Russian opposition figures, like Garry Kasparov, supported it for a different reason. It had been paired with something called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Magnitsky, you may recall, was the young Russian lawyer who tried to expose a huge tax fraud involving a number of high-ranking officials. His efforts led to his imprisonment, where he was grossly mistreated and deprived of medical treatment. And he died. The Magnitsky act would prevent his jailers — and other human rights abusers — from entering the country, and it would have frozen their assets as well.

Not surprisingly, the Russians loathe the Magnitsky act, and the Obama administration doesn’t much like it either. (No administration likes to have its hands tied on foreign policy matters.) For the Republicans, it was a trifecta: they could pass a bill that helps American business, show they care about human rights and stick it to the administration. What could be better?

When I first wrote about the Magnitsky act in April, I was given to believe that it would sail through, so I diverted my attention elsewhere. What got me looking at it again were the recent events in Russia, where the crackdown by President Vladimir Putin against any and all opposition is in full swing.

A few recent highlights: three singers of a punk-rock band called Pussy Riot are on trial for singing an anti-Putin song in a church. The three women could be imprisoned for up to seven years if found guilty. (Late last week, Putin stated that he didn’t think they should be “judged severely” by the courts, which means they almost surely won’t be.)

Alexander Lebedev, a banker and newspaper owner who supported the opposition, said that he was selling his Russia assets after being hounded by the police and regulators. “I give up,” he said.

Most alarming is the recent indictment of Aleksei Navalny, the anticorruption blogger who has become the country’s leading opposition figure. The indictment is transparently bogus. He is accused of embezzling timber in a deal where he acted as an unpaid adviser. He could be facing up to 10 years in prison. The American Lawyer noted that the indictment is causing some lawyers to become “skeptical about the country’s commitment to the rule of law.” (Magnitsky, by the way, is being prosecuted posthumously.)

The Navalny news took place the week before the Congressional recess. One might have thought that it would focus the minds of House Republicans. Instead, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that normalizing trade relations would be a “concession” to Russia. Could there be a bigger misreading? Russia will be in the W.T.O. within weeks. The question is whether American companies will be able to reap the benefits, like other W.T.O. members.

The rule of law, meanwhile, remains a critical issue for Russia — maybe the critical issue. Citizens who were once able to voice their opposition now face harassment or worse. Businessmen who cross the government find themselves in the cross hairs. The rampant corruption — which is enabled by the lack of a rule of law — only grows worse. “The business community completely understands what is going on,” said Jamison Firestone, whose law firm once employed Magnitsky, “but they are terrified to say anything.”

The Magnitsky act is hardly going to change Russia overnight. It might result in retaliation by Russia. But it has consequences that Russian officials — most of whom park their assets abroad — really care about. It has the potential to make a difference, just as Jackson-Vanik once did. If only Congress could pass it.

Meanwhile, after suggesting last week that the Russian trade bill would be deferred until after the election, the House leadership quickly backpedaled. Now Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, says it will be brought to a vote in September, before Congress departs again to run for re-election.

I’m not holding my breath.


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