Less than a week before the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Senate voted to ease restrictions on exports of high-tech products.
Senators approved S. 149, the Export Administration Act of 2001, by an 85-14 vote. It replaces the Export Administration Act of 1979, which emphasized Cold War-era concerns and expired in 1994. Since then, Congress has temporarily extended the act, and the Clinton and Bush administrations also maintained the restrictions by issuing executive orders, an approach which some lawmakers have said might be open to challenge in the courts.
The Export Administration Act, which was strongly supported by the computer industry, would remove export restrictions on products that are deemed to have "mass-market status," meaning that the product—or other products similar to it—is produced in large quantities and is readily available "through normal commercial channels, such as retail stores, direct marketing catalogues, electronic commerce, and other channels."
The new bill also would remove restrictions on exports of US-made products that are similar to foreign-made products readily available to foreign purchasers. However, the bill also would give the president the authority to set aside a specific product's exemption under the mass-market or foreign-availability sections of the bill, under national security grounds. Individuals who violate the export restrictions could be fined as much as $1 million, and companies could be fined $5 million.
The Senate bill stands in sharp contrast to a House bill, H.R. 2581, introduced in the House of Representatives in July by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), which would give the Defense and State departments a stronger hand in blocking commercial exports. The bill attracted bipartisan support among senators. "This bill removes several unnecessary restrictions on exports that only hinder international trade, puts in place a system to track and license those technologies that have the potential to impact national security, and establishes realistic penalties and sanctions for violations of those regulations," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
"The Export Administration Act will allow the US government to effectively focus attention and exert control over sensitive technologies that have military implications, improve the export control process, and enhance national security," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), the Republican leader in the Senate, told reporters that the bill "will help the United States be able to export more of our high-tech equipment and goods, and I think that's a positive step. I hope the House will take it up quickly."
A handful of senators raised red flags about the legislation, however. "I resolutely support free trade. But I cannot with a clear conscience support passage of legislation that weakens our national security controls on sensitive exports to a point that we may one day be challenged, or face attack, from weapons derived from the very technologies we have willingly contributed to the world," said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who voted against the bill. "Our peaceable intentions, our love of prosperity and stability, are not shared by those who would do America harm, and whose hostile ambitions today may well be matched tomorrow by the ability to deliver on that threat. We should make it harder, not easier, for them to do so." And Sen. Ruchard Shelby (R-AL) told fellow lawmakers, "I am concerned that the interests of the high-tech business community have replaced reasonable consideration of our dual-use export-control regime."
The Bush administration strongly supported the bill, and after the Senate approved it, Commerce Secretary Don Evans released a statement praising the vote: "Technology and open trade have changed the way America does business. Yesterday's supercomputer is today's Playstation . . . Open markets are an engine for economic growth. The Export Administration Act . . . says to markets, businesses, and workers that the United States will lead on trade." He also called on the House to approve the Senate's bill.
The terrorist attacks came five days later. Reflecting on the attacks the day after they happened, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) warned lawmakers about the changes to export law, voicing concerns that may be expressed more frequently as the House considers the bill.
"Surely, we will reanalyze the wisdom of America contributing to the proliferation of militarily useful technology simply because we want the sales. It is my belief that this is what we did as late as last week with the passage of the Export Administration Act," Thompson said. "If we place short-term considerations, our desire for profit, or our desire to maintain record-high surpluses above our national security, we will become much more vulnerable to the potential of experiencing other days like yesterday."