By Jill Dougherty
As Russia finally joins the World Trade Organization, U.S. business leaders are warning Congress that American companies could be left in the dust as other countries move in to take advantage of Russia's lower trade barriers.
"The whole world is ready - except the United States. Until Congress approves PNTR (permanent normal trade relations legislation) with Russia, Moscow will be free to deny the United States the full benefits of its reforms," said a statement from U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue.
Congress broke for its August recess without passing PNTR legislation. The Chamber and other business organizations are calling on legislators to pass it when they return in September.
The United States is a member of the WTO but still has Cold-War-era legislation - the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment - governing its trade relations with Russia. The amendment was passed in 1974 as a way of pressuring Russia to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate. That's no longer an issue, but the amendment remains on the books. The United States waives it every year, but it still violates WTO rules requiring members of the organization to give each other permanent normal trade relations.
"By standing still on trade, America risks being left behind once again," Donohue's statement said. "Because of our inaction on PNTR, European and Asian companies have won a head start in the Russian market."
"PNTR exclusively benefits Americans selling their goods and services in the Russian market. The United States gives up nothing - not a single tariff - in approving it," he added. "It's a true jobs bill, and won't cost taxpayers one penny."
The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) joined the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday in calling on Congress to pass PNTR legislation immediately upon returning to Washington following the August recess.
"Now that Russia has acceded to the WTO, the United States has an opportunity to become a bigger economic player in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world - but only if Congress passes PNTR legislation," said NFTC President Bill Reinsch.
"If Congress does not act quickly, American companies, exporters and workers will be at a competitive disadvantage in the Russian market....Granting permanent normal trade relations is not a favor to Russia, instead it is necessary step to help stimulate U.S. economic growth and job creation by expanding trade with the world's ninth-largest economy. The U.S. cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity," said NFTC Vice President Dan O'Flaherty.
Even if many members of Congress support ending the Jackson-Vanik amendment, some still think Washington needs a way of holding Russia's feet to the fire on human rights and other issues. Some lawmakers support the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act," named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He died in 2009 after a year in prison, apparently beaten to death, after revealing official corruption.
Under that law, which is not linked to trade and has not yet been passed, the United States would deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky's death or to other human rights abuses.