WASHINGTON D.C. - Congressman Scott Rigell and his wife Teri hosted a dinner last week in their handsome home near Capitol Hill for Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. It was one of those evening socials, a staple of the diplomatic and political circuit in the nation’s capital, but there was no mistaking the Philippines' chief envoy in America was hard at work.
Cuisia was joined by a slice of the Fil-Am community in Virginia – Delegate Ron Villanueva and Clerk of Court Pina Cenon, couple Roy and Naomi Estaris who run a large travel agency, Nony Abrajano of NaFFAA, the umbrella of Fil-Am associations in the US.
They all had something in common other than being active Fil-Am community leaders – they’re from Virginia Beach that happens to be Rigell’s district.
Cuisia has been mounting a charm offensive on Capitol Hill to push the SAVE Act, a trade bill pending in Congress that would provide duty-free access for US textiles entering the Philippines and Philippine apparel shipped to the US. This could be the first trade accord between treaty allies US and the Philippines in over 40 years.
The one-time chief of the Philippine Central Bank is pursuing the SAVE Act as a straight business proposition. He is telling everyone on Capitol Hill and the White House that passing the bill would not only be evidence of the closeness that Manila and Washington D.C. often proclaim, there was also money to be made for both sides.
On the surface, Cuisia told ABS-CBN News after a recent House foreign affairs sub-committee hearing, “it doesn’t look to create as many jobs for the US textile industry. It will, however, generate a lot of exports and the export is what I am emphasizing because it can help reduce the US trade deficit.”
The US had a $609 million trade deficit with the Philippines in 2010, according to statistics from the office of the US Trade Representative.
There are twin bills pending in Congress – Senate 1244 and House Resolution 2387 – that defines the so-called Save Our Industries or SAVE Act. It has gotten bipartisan support but still far short of the critical mass that could push the measure through the legislative mill and onto President Obama’s desk.
At the House sub-committee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade hearing looking into the state of the US-Philippine alliance, panel chairman Congressman Ed Royce of California declared his support for the SAVE Act.
“Many skilled Filipinos deserve a better economy than the one they’ve had to survive in and the United States can help in this regard,” Royce said.
Another California solon, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said that if the US can give China “most favored nation” status and now see it as a strident global competitor they should give the Philippines, a long-standing US ally, the same opportunity.
“Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos lost their jobs,” Royce said, after the global apparel tariff system was lifted 7 years ago, shrinking Philippine garment exports to the US from a peak of $3 billion to about $1 billion today.
“Those jobs have shifted to China. We should give an ally like the Philippines a leg up in competing for international apparel orders,” he stressed.
“I’m very happy that Chairman Royce is one of the supporters and that he would like this (SAVE Act) to push through,” Cuisia told the Manila Mail, “but we need more support from other congressmen and senators.”
“We’re trying to get more of the Republican senators so it becomes a truly bipartisan bill,” he added.
He’s already won over Missouri Senator Roy Blunt who sits in some key committees, including appropriations and commerce; and is the ranking Republican in the Commerce sub-committee on competitiveness, innovation and export promotion. He is also the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Cuisia disclosed he is trying to woo Senator John McCain, a recent Manila visitor, to support the SAVE Act as well.
Without a professional lobby group helping out, Cuisia has been forced to do much of the work himself. Congressman Rigell was, according to a source, the 5th lawmaker he’s been courting since the start of the year.
“The SAVE Act has bipartisan support,” Royce said, “I am hopeful in advancing this to the Ways & Means committee right now; it’s gaining more and more support, more and more traction.”
But it will still be a tough slog for Cuisia and his team at the Philippine Embassy. If the free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama last year are a barometer efforts to win approval of the SAVE Act has barely scratched the surface.
For instance, there’s apparently been some pushback on the loss of revenues for the US. “When they look at the potential revenue loss because of the zero duty for garments entering the US market, they only look at the CBO formula,” he explained, referring to revenue calculations by the Congressional Budget Office.
“They’re not looking at the revenues generated by export and I’ve pointed that out to legislatros that the CBO formula does not look at exports,” he argued.
The Philippines is the US’ 30th biggest export market in 2010. US exported $7.4 billion in goods in 2010, a nearly 30 percent rise over the previous year. But it also bought about $8 billion worth of goods – mostly machineries, garments and coconut oil – from the Philippines, resulting in a deficit.
SAVE Act proponents argue that by gaining access to cheaper but better-quality textiles, Philippine-made products can better compete not only in the US but also in the world market and possibly denting China’s domination in Asia, opening opportunities for more US textile exports.
As a diplomat steeped in the lingua franca of business, Cuisia realizes there’s still a lot of selling to do for the SAVE Act.