WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday tapped Rep. Rob Portman (search), an Ohio Republican, to be the nation's next trade representative.
"To keep our economy growing and creating jobs, we need to continue opening foreign markets to American products," Bush said in a Roosevelt Room announcement. "Rob knows that America's farmers and workers can compete with anybody, anytime, anywhere in the world, so long as the rules are fair."
"Open markets and better trade relations are key components to a more peaceful and more stable and more prosperous world," said Portman. "Here at home, trade policy opens markets to create jobs, a higher standard of living and greater economic growth."
Portman admitted it was tough to decide to leave Congress.
"I look forward to continuing to work very closely with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both houses," he said.
As USTR, Portman will be the administration's lead representative in developing international trade policy.
One priority will be to implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search), which would eliminate trade barriers between the U.S., the Central American nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean.
Portman's state, Ohio, has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past few decades. Labor organizers blame, in part, free-trade agreements that they say encourage companies to "outsource" work to countries with cheaper labor.
The administration also hopes to strike free-trade deals with several Arab countries, mostly in North Africa, and hopes to create a free-trade zone in the Arab world by 2013.
Opponents of free trade blame it for the surging U.S. trade deficit, which grew 24.3 percent in 2004 to set a third straight record at $617.1 billion. Private economists say another record trade imbalance is likely for 2005.
As a well-liked member of Congress during his 12 years in the House, Portman was expected to have no trouble winning the Senate's endorsement. Several lawmakers expressed their delight at his selection.
“Congressman Portman is an outstanding candidate to serve as America’s trade representative. ... Throughout his career, Mr. Portman has consistently worked in a bipartisan way to craft fair trade policy. I’m confident that he has the skills and experience necessary to negotiate sound policies that will create jobs, promote growth and spread economic prosperity," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"Rob Portman has the skills, experience and depth of knowledge required to succeed in this critical position. Rob understands markets and the importance of America’s competitive position in the world," said Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Portman was first elected to Congress in 1993 in a special election. Before that, he worked in Bush's father's administration as associate counsel and director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs (search).
In 2001, Portman became part of a nine-member committee that crafted House legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security (search). He has also been involved with preventing drug abuse, updating pension laws, eliminating capital-gains taxes on home sales and restructuring the Internal Revenue Service.
Portman served as Ohio communications chair for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, and was a policy adviser during both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. He also played the roles of Democratic candidates Joe Lieberman, Al Gore and John Edwards in presidential and vice-presidential debate practice sessions during both campaigns.
From 1984 to 1986, Portman was an associate at the Washington law firm Patton Boggs (search), where he specialized in international trade law. He then returned to his hometown of Cincinnati, where he was a partner at the law firm of Graydon, Head and Ritchey from 1986 to 1989.